The Emerald City of Oz. The end of the Yellow Brick Road. The home of the Wizard. Few images are as vivid in our minds. But where did the original vision for the Emerald City come from? Many believe that the inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City may have been the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, otherwise known as The White City.
Chicago’s White City was one of the most extraordinary set of structures ever created. It was an entire set of elaborate building built around a large reflecting pool. It was called the Columbian Exposition because it was commerorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Build by a team of architects led by Charles Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead, the buildings of the white city dazzled—but they were also flimsy and temporary, built of cheap plywood and torn down at the expositions end.
L. Frank Baum visited the White City on more than one occasion—the city made even more impressive by the presence of the world’s first Ferris Wheel and the glittering profusion of electric lights that illuminated the city at dusk.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s illustrator, W.W. Denslow actually was commissioned to do a series of illustrations of The World’s Fair, and the comparisons between that and the city of Oz are hard to miss.
And the Chicago exhibition with it’s strange combination of real life magic—technological innovations like the giant Ferris Wheel, an electric sidewalk, and it’s glittering expanse of electric lights—alongside the flimsy fakery of a false city seems all-of-a-piece with Frank Baum’s Oz.
And one more thing. While the Emerald City of Oz that we all know and love from the MGM movie was indeed a green shade, in Frank Baum’s original book no one could enter or leave the Emerald City without donning green-tinted spectacles that were locked in place.
He opened the big box, and Dorothy saw that it was filled with spectacles of every size and shape. All of them had green glasses in them. The Guardian of the Gates found a pair that would just fit Dorothy and put them over her eyes. There were two golden bands fastened to them that passed around the back of her head, where they were locked together by a little key that was at the end of a chain the Guardian of the Gates wore around his neck. When they were on, Dorothy could not take them off had she wished, but of course she did not wish to be blinded by the glare of the Emerald City, so she said nothing.