What does The Wizard of Oz tell us about money?
What does The Wizard of Oz tell us about money?

What does The Wizard of Oz tell us about money?

What colour are Dorothy’s shoes? Or what does The Wizard of Oz tell us about money?
The story of The Wizard of Oz is also the story of the history of money in America. Watch Professor Nicky Marsh explain why.

We can see some of the difficulties that people have with imagining money, and the roles that literary and visual texts have in making them apparent, if we look more closely at one example from American history.

The relationship between politics and money can be read through the history of paper money in America. The history of America, Jason Goodwin has suggested in his book Greenback: the Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America is the history of paper money.

America paid for the revolutionary war with Britain by issuing its own paper money, something that the British government had forbidden them from doing. These first paper dollars, which acted to unite the separate states of the young nation, were called the Continental. However, after the war had been won the money became rapidly worthless, as America faced its debts and struggled to create a new financial infrastructure. The money gave rise to the phrase ‘not worth a continental’, a phrase which circulated far longer than the money itself.

It was a pattern that was repeated in the Civil War of the 1860s. This was was paid for by the issuing of greenbacks – and, again, the period of reconstruction in which America faced the debts of the war saw this paper money become worthless and a deep mistrust of paper money lingered in the national imaginary after this point.

So by the 1890s, the American economy had a serious problem. On the one hand, it was experiencing a very serious and deep depression. On the other, it lacked a secure money source that it could use to grow the economy.

Paper, silver or gold?
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This content is taken from
University of Southampton online course,
Understanding Money: the History of Finance, Speculation and the Stock Market

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The debate became about what kind of money America should use: should it use a paper money (a return to the greenbacks), should it use gold (but there wasn’t enough and so the economy couldn’t grow) or should it continue on what was called the bimetallic standard – in which it used both silver and gold (there was more, but it was sound).

These differences shaped American politics in the final decade of the nineteenth century and three kinds of positions emerged.

There were the ‘gold bugs’, such as President McKinley (seen in a cartoon in the previous step) who wanted a return to the gold standard. The goldbugs were largely identified with the Eastern bankers and the financial elite. There were the ‘populists’ who advocated a return to the bi-metal standard. This was a money which was backed by both silver and gold and which would have eased the shortage of ready currency. There were also the ‘green backers’, those who wanted a return to paper money and who were often associated with the working class.

And we can find this story – and can seem quite a dry boring story by itself – in some of the period’s most popular texts, such as L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.

Symbolism in The Wizard of Oz
In 1964 Henry Littlefield – a teacher – published an article explaining the close correspondence between The Wizard of Oz and the frames of this debate – and successive writers (notably Hugh Rockoff) added to it. These writers placed particular importance on the fact that Dorothy’s shoes were actually silver in the original novella. (MGM gave her red shoes in the 1939 film to celebrate the possibilities of technicolour!) Dorothy’s silver shoes were seen by economic historians as crucial to the symbolic associations between the story and the politics of the moment.

These articles described the story in terms of the bimetal debates. In representing silver, Dorothy is seen to represent the populist movement. She comes from the West, she is naïve but good-hearted and optimistic about the future. She walks her silver shoes down the yellow brick road in the land of Oz (an abbreviation of the word ounce) and the image was taken to represent the bi-metal standard itself. The wizard – with his green city and land of make-believe – can be read as the greenbacks, as money that just exists through pure belief.

This allegory was given more support by the fact that the rest of the story fitted it so well. In the years before Baum wrote the novel, Jacob Coxey led an army of the unemployed to Washington to ask for paper money. The men that accompanied Coxey can also be read into the story of the Wizard of Oz. The Tinman represents the worker left unemployed and dehumanised by the long recession and the Strawman represents the farmer unable to work his land. Collectively, when they join Dorothy, they become Coxey’s Army – marching on Washington to ask for a new form of money. The wizard’s magic, in other words, is supported by nothing but self-belief and it this ‘gift’ that he gives to the Scarecrow and the Tinman. It is also in this sense, then, the Wizard functions as an allegory for money itself, because it exists only through belief.

So within this most famous of books in American literature is an allegory about money that historians and economists have been using for a long time. But what’s interesting is that they haven’t been able to agree whether the story is supporting populism or critiquing populism – what is Baum doing with it?

We can think about this question if we ask what else Baum is really telling us about how money works in this story. We need to ask not only what kind of money (gold, silver, or paper) but what money itself is for. And this opens us to an even more interesting history for this familiar children’s story.

Who was Lyman Frank Baum?
In the year 1900, Baum wrote another book ‘The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors’.

As an optimistic entrepreneur of his expansionist time, Baum had worked as a travelling actor, playwright, set designer, and journalist, but he discovered a passion for display designing the windows for his own shop, Baum’s Bazaar, in Aberdeen, South Dakota. This was a fancy goods shop in the middle of the worst depression America had ever known. Nobody could buy the things that Baum was offering so he gave his customers credit. And did they pay him back? No, they didn’t: the records show that when the shop went bust Baum had over 20 creditors on his books.

This credit was never repaid because such ‘open book’ credit, as it was called, is notoriously unreliable in the 1890s. Baum had no way of assessing the creditworthiness of his customers. Baum had no way of sharing information about his customers. Baum had no way of sharing the risk that lending this money involved or of getting the money back if the loan went bad. After the business folded Baum moved with his family to Chicago and this is where he wrote The Wizard of Oz.

It is possible to read the story not simply through the bimetal debates but through Baum’s experiences in the 1890s. It was a particular kind of economy, the consumer economy of the luxury goods store that relied on more secure forms of consumer credit, that also lay behind the fantasy of The Wizard of Oz.

What does the Emerald City represent?
Whilst Baum lived in Chicago the city hosted the 1893 World Fair. We know that Baum, and Walter Denslow the illustrator of the original story, were very influenced by the World Fair and visited it frequently. It seems quite likely that he got the idea for both his own shop and for the Emerald City from the palaces of fancy goods that were being exhibited in the Fair. Indeed, his own letters suggest that he had wanted his own shop to look like this as well – just on a smaller scale!

What’s so interesting about the Wizard’s Emerald City in Baum’s novella is that not only is it green but that it, unlike the Land of Oz that Dorothy first arrives in, does contain money. In Baum’s novella one of the first things she notes are the people who are buying green lemonade with green pennies. We can think about the money in the Emerald City, I want to suggest, and argue that Baum wasn’t simply advocating paper money in this story, the greenbacks that Jacob Coxey had marched to Washington to demand, but the possibility of the consumer credit that his own shop had failed for want of. When Baum gives us the Emerald City, in other words, he is giving us all the pleasures of consumerism, of perfumed sheets and of ornate dresses, and the credit that they rely on.

There is a very neat historical story that supports this. The person selling the actual lemonade in the real world fair, Aaron Nusbaum, used the money to buy Sears Roebuck – which became the main producer of instalment credit in early 20th America. In fact, the credit extended by Sears Roebuck catalogue allowed the rural population to participate in the rapidly expanding consumer economy of the 1890s. It succeeded, in other words, precisely where Baum had failed. What we can see behind Baum’s story is a history not only of gold and silver but a history of consumer credit: the money that shops themselves had started to create in the opening years of the twentieth century and that enabled the emergence of the consumer economy.

Why teach money through The Wizard of Oz?
Teaching money through The Wizard of Oz allows us to do lots of things. It allows us to think about the invention of money – that money didn’t always look the way it looks now and has taken different and contested forms. We can also begin to realise that the money that we have now is political in some way – that it serves some interests more than others.

It also allows us to think about how paper money works – if the wizard’s moment of belief is about the fact that paper money exists through trust. We all know it’s only made of paper or cotton or polymer but we act like it’s gold – in the same way that the scarecrow knows that the brains that the wizard gives him aren’t real but he wants to believe that they are so he does.

Finally, it also allows us to think about what money is for. The money in The Wizard of Oz is about a growing economy – is about consumerism (this is also true of the film, of course, which was made in 1939 and has been read as a response to the depression – for the filmmakers the wizard was Roosevelt and the city the New Deal where everything can be given). The film can also be taught as a way of thinking about what it is that we need to make us happy.

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This content is taken from University of Southampton online course
Understanding Money: the History of Finance, Speculation and the Stock Market
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Understanding Money: the History of Finance, Speculation and the Stock Market

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