The Wonderful World of Baum

In 1900, a Chicago salesman spent his days traveling by train to small towns in the upper Midwest carrying samples of fine china packed in display cases. To while away his boredom as a traveling salesman, he got into the habit of scribbling little tidbits of stories on scraps of paper so that he could tell bedtime stories to his children when he got home from the road. By the time he reached his fourth decade, he had tried multiple businesses and failed at almost everything he had tried. At forty-four, he became an improbable overnight success.

When The Wonderful Wizard of Oz burst onto the scene, it did so with incredible power. It was an immediate hit, and even now, on the hundredth anniversary of L. Frank Baum’s death, the story is as well-known as ever. The world of Oz has been woven into the fabric of the American life perhaps like no other story. Our vernacular is peppered with references to Oz: the man behind the curtain, the ruby slippers and the gingham dress, the wooden house and the tornado, the good witches and wicked witches, the bleak landscape of Kansas and the brilliant color of the Emerald City. His characters, The Scarecrow, the Tin Woods Man, the Lion, and of course Dorothy and Toto, feel so timeless that it’s hard to remember that they were inspired by the life and times of one American family.  We know what came after Baum’s masterpiece: 13 sequels written by the author himself, more than forty books in all, countless spin-offs—more stories, plays, musicals, and films, and of course, the iconic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, which became a beloved annual TV viewing tradition and has been deemed “the most viewed film of all time.”

But what led up to all this? Who was this man who wrote this famous story? What was the life that led up to it?

The Syracuse of Maud and Frank Baum

Frank Baum (his given name was Lyman but he always went by Frank) was born in 1856 in Chittenango, New York, a small town not far from Syracuse. The house he was born in is now a museum.

His father was an oilman who made a fortune wildcatting in the Oil Country of western Pennsylvania, before John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil put most of the small oilmen out of business.  Frank was the seventh of nine children (only five survived to adulthood) and was a quiet, imaginative boy.  He was sent away to military school at the age of 12, (photo of Frank at school) but was so unhappy there that he was allowed to drop out and return home.  During his youth, his family lived on a large estate, called Rose Lawn for its beautiful landscaped grounds. As a young man, he became interested in the theater, and his indulgent father built a theater in Richburg, NY, an oil town, and gave his son Frank enough money to start a small company.  Frank took on the name “Louis” as a stage name and soon was acting, directing, and writing music for his company.

Maud had grown up in Fayetteville, another small town not far from Syracuse. Maud was a spirited and feisty young woman, raised by a strong-minded mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage, a famous and controversial suffragist and advocate for the rights of women.

The house Maud grew up in was always abuzz with her mother’s well-known group of friends—Susan B. Anthony stayed there so often that she carved her name into the upstairs window.  Maud’s childhood home is now a museum.

A Diploma: Cornell and Co-Education

Maud Gage was a sophomore at Cornell University she was introduced to L. Frank Baum by her roommate, Josie, who was Baum’s cousin.

What was it like to be one of the first women in the Ivy League? According to Maud and her friends, it was not so hot. The idea that women were capable of studying at the same level as men was highly controversial. The prevailing wisdom in the Victorian Era was that women had a finite amount of energy that should be saved for housework and childbearing. A college education was considered overly taxing and dangerous to a woman’s health. The number of women who studied at the collegiate level was quite small, and most of those studied in separate women-only institutions.  When Henry Sage, an Ithaca businessman, secured the funds to build Sage College at Cornell, he built a beautiful modern building with everything a young co-ed could want, but only a smattering of young women dared enroll.

“You see, in this country are a number of youths who do not like to work, and the college is an excellent place for them.” – L. Frank Baum

Frank for his part, a school drop-out, was not a big believer in formal education. Nonetheless, he was supportive of Maud and loved and respected his educated wife.

A Scarecrow’s Tale

Maud’s mother Matilda Joslyn Gage was known for writing history and philosophy, but one of the first books she ever wrote was a children’s story called A Crow’s Tale.  The story was based on her daughter’s pet crow, kept as a pet, who was killed by a neighbor who said that the crow was bothering him with his loud caws.  Matilda believed firmly in the value of all living things—including crows.  She was so incensed at this act of cruelty that she lobbied the state legislature of New York to write a law to protect wild animals who were being kept as pets.

Baum’s Castorine Company

 

The touring theater business was not steady or lucrative enough to support a growing family, so Frank and Maud returned to Syracuse and Frank embarked on trying to earn a living.  His father’s fortune had dwindled and so Frank joined his older brother’s company, selling a petroleum-based axle-grease for buggies and wagons called Baum’s Castorine. Unfortunately, Baum’s brother was the businessman, and Frank was more suited to sales. When his brother fell ill and subsequently died, Frank found that their bookkeeper was swindling the company and had almost bankrupted them. Frank’s stint as an oil salesman ended, but when his fictional creation the Tin Woodsman was rusted into place, Dorothy reaches for an oil can—and Baum’s Castorine would have done just the trick.

Women’s Rights and Women’s Health

Maud’s mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage spent her entire life fighting hard to secure the vote for women and died 20 years before women’s suffrage finally passed into law. But there was an even more pressing concern for women in the 1880s—their health.  Babies were born at home, and infant disease and childhood death was rampant. In the era before vaccines, many children died of childhood diseases. In the late 19th century, an unregulated market for “patent medicines” most containing tincture of opium, exacerbated health issues and often led to addiction.  Infants and small children were routinely dosed with medicines that did more harm than good. And not just the vulnerable children fared poorly. A woman’s risk of dying in childbirth was a staggering one in a hundred (compared to today at one in one hundred thousand) Every woman knew that by bearing children she was putting her own life at risk, and even worse, risking leaving behind motherless children. A terrifying prospect.  After the birth of her second child, Maud became sick with peritonitis, an infection in the abdomen that is so severe that even with modern antibiotics and hospitals it is a life-threatening condition. In Maud’s day, it was a near death sentence, and the only treatment was months and months of rest.  In all, Maud was sick for close to two years. It is a testament to her iron will and the loving care of her family that she recovered.

Baum’s Bazaar

The 1870s and 1880s were a tumultuous time in American history. The economy swung through several recessions and chances for small business people were becoming more and more difficult to find as America industrialized and moved toward a wage economy. Following in the footsteps of others who headed west to seek their fortune, they headed to Aberdeen, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota).

Frank and Maud were not the first members of their family to head west. Maud’s older brother T.C. had headed to Dakota almost a decade earlier, and had been successful as a real estate developer. At that time there was a land rush—people believed that any town along a major railroad line might be the next Chicago or St. Paul. And this was a new era in frontier settlement. Maud and Frank traveled not by prairie schooner, but by newly laid train tracks. Since 1869, when the golden spike was hammered in and the transcontinental railroad finally reached from coast to coast, traveling to formerly remote locations had become much easier.

Even so, Aberdeen in 1888, when Maud and Frank arrived with their two young boys was a frontier town just barely carved out of the prairie—a scattering of houses, a train depot, and single main street of false-fronted wooden structures that looked as if they might blow away in a strong wind.

Frank, always optimistic and buoyant by nature, saw a land of opportunity, but his taste for whimsy and extravagance, the imagination of a theater man, soon took over.  Where more practical people saw a tiny farm-town struggling to gain a foothold, Baum saw a budding metropolis. He decided that what the town needed was a luxury-goods store—an emporium filled to the rafters with fancy bric-a-brac and toys galore. And for a moment, it seemed as if it would work. For several years, the Dakota wheat crop was booming and farmers had money to spend. But when a terrible drought ensued, the farmers who relied on rain, not irrigation, to water their crops, lost their wheat crops. Within just a couple of years, Aberdeen went from boom to bust.

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Baum's Bazaar in Aberdeen, South Dakota

The Homesteaders

Maud and Frank lived in relative comfort in Aberdeen, the houses they lived in still stand, but they were closely acquainted with the harsh life of those who were trying to make a living by farming. The government had made a deal with people—take a piece of land, improve it, and live on it for a minimum of five years and the land would be yours.

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A typical homestead in Dakota Terrority.

Maud’s sister Julia and her husband James Duguid Carpenter were eking out a meager existence about eighty miles north of Aberdeen in a barren one-room shack. Twenty-nine when she married, Julia was no doubt close to being an old maid when she married a man ten years her junior and headed west with him to stake a claim.

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Julia and James Carpenter

Julia, who had until then lived a refined life in her mother and father’s home was ill-equipped to take on this task.

Unlike Maud and Frank, who settled in a railroad hub, the last leg of Julia and James’s journey to the claim was on a mule-driven cart surrounded by a plague of mosquitos and which was several times stuck in the trackless mud.  Her diaries reveal that she didn’t know how to do simple household tasks, like make coffee or biscuits, or do laundry in the homestead’s primitive conditions. Her husband was a difficult man, unsuccessful in farming and reportedly a heavy drinker. Frank and Maud were able to see the difficult life of Julia and her children firsthand.

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds.” – L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

Frank Baum Newspaper Editor

Frank Baum’s Bazaar went under—in part because the soft-hearted Frank had extended too much credit to people who were suffering from economic setbacks. So he embarked on another new career—newspaper man. He bought up one of Aberdeen’s seven newspapers and proceeded to be its publisher, salesman, writer, and chief promoter. The newspaper business suited Frank. He stole market share from other publications by writing about women’s activities and social events in the town—he and Maud were well–loved and made the rounds of church socials, box lunches, and dances.

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Matilda Joslyn Gage

But in spite of its popularity, Frank found it hard to make a living. People in the town were going broke. Many were packing up and leaving—going home to the east, or heading further west looking for opportunity.

Suffrage in South Dakota

When South Dakota entered into statehood, one thought was very much on the Baum family’s mind. Votes for women!  There was already a precedent. When the territory of Wyoming became a state in 1888, women were given the right to vote—the first state to recognize this right. Matilda Joslyn Gage and Susan B. Anthony along with many other prominent advocates swarmed into the state lobbying for the state’s constitution to include women’s right to vote. Frank wrote pro-suffrage editorials, Matilda visited women all over the state, and Maud devoted herself to activities for the cause, but to their great disappointment, the men of South Dakota failed to grant women the right to vote by a large margin.

The White City or the Emerald City?

“Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day. They are all locked on, for Oz so ordered it when the City was first built, and I have the only key that will unlock them. 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.” – L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

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The White City at the Chicago World's Fair

In the latter half of the 19th century, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world, it’s population increasing from thirty thousand in 1850 to just over a million in 1890 as the city rapidly industrialized, adding rail lines and factories, stockyards and buildings and people at an unprecedented rate. Nothing embodied that excitement more than the 1893 Columbian Exhibition.

Architects built an entire mock city to rival the greatest cities of the world—with one important difference. Like an elaborate stage set, it was built entirely of cheap plywood covered with white paint. The spectacular fake city became known as “The White City.” Rotating above it was a miracle of modern engineering—the world’s first Ferris Wheel. The Baum family visited the exhibition several times, and many see parallels between the fabulous white city and the Emerald City of Oz.

No place like home: The Baum Family in Hollywood

Frank Baum was fascinated by photography and by the promise of moving pictures, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.  Using money from the Oz books, he put on a very expensive touring show called “The Fairylogue and Radio Play” that combined a stage play with hand-colored magic lantern slides that many people consider one of the earliest motion pictures.  Unfortunately, the play was so expensive to produce and tour that the Baums went bankrupt.

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Frank and Maud's home in Hollywood, Ozcot.

Realizing that he was bad at managing money, Frank had had long since let Maud take charge of their financial management. Deeply in debt, Maud was forced to sign over one of their most lucrative assets—the rights to Frank’s first book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Using money inherited from her mother, Maud and Frank bought a piece of land in what was then a sleepy village called Hollywood, and they build a beautiful home filled with Oz memorabilia and christened it Ozcot. Frank penned book after book (many under pen names) to keep the family afloat and happily devoted himself to the garden of Ozcot where he grew prize-winning azaleas and kept an aviary full of exotic birds.  Frank made one final foray into filmmaking, partnering with some California businessmen to found the Oz Manufacturing film company which produced a couple of early silent films using the Oz characters, but Frank would die in 1919 twenty years before the release of the iconic film The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz

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Gate at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

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The Thalberg building, present day, at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA

It was success of the Disney animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that inspired M-G-M Studios to make a film from the book The Wizard of Oz, hoping to capitalize on movie goer’s appetite for fantasy films. M-G-M, under the direction of Louis B. Mayer, was Hollywood’s premiere studio, known for its extravagant musical productions featuring hundreds of choreographed dancers. When M-G-M set out to make The Wizard of Oz film, it was an act of daring and bravado—they were going to invent the techniques needed to bring a fantasy to life not with animated drawings but with real actors and all the whiz-bang technology that they could figure out how to capture on film.  All of the special effects, from the famous wooden house sailing into the vortex of a tornado, to the witch throwing a fireball, to Dorothy’s face appearing in the witch’s glass globe, had to be invented from scratch. And perhaps most of all, the brilliant directorial decision to move from a sepia-toned Kansas to the brilliant Technicolor of Oz showcased the growing power of film as Hollywood entered its heyday. M-G-M studios was sold to Sony Pictures but its famous backlot remains surprisingly unchanged from Louis B. Mayer’s day.

Judy Garland

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Maud Baum and Judy Garland looking at a copy of The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, born Frances Gumm, was a child actress on a contract to M-G-M studios when she was offered the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. On the face of it, she appeared too old to play the character of a young girl, but her incredible singing voice won her the role. Unfortunately for Judy, the studio system offered little protection for a young woman. The studio doctors plied her with amphetamines to give her energy and help her lose weight and then put her on barbituates to help her sleep.  She and other actresses of her era reported widespread harassment at the hands of the male directors and producers who surrounded them and they had no recourse but to keep silent if they wanted to keep their jobs. It was Judy’s role as Dorothy that broke her out to international stardom, and the anthem, Over the Rainbow, became her signature song. But sadly, Judy led a tragic life and never found happiness. A drug addiction that started as a child actress ended her life at age 47. Nonetheless, Judy Garland has remained an international icon, one of the most beloved performers of all time.

So who was Dorothy, anyway?

By its very nature, fiction is make-believe, and that is certainly true of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is rare that a fiction writer can precisely articulate where his or her inspirations came from. It is the work of fans and historians and literary critics to tease out those connections. Since Frank had no daughters, many have found it interesting that he created one of fiction’s most beloved characters—a little girl named Dorothy. T.C. and his wife Sophie had an infant daughter who died just before Frank published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Her name was Dorothy. This was the second of TCs daughters to die in infancy. The first, Alice, lived only a few months. Their oldest, Matilda, lived to adulthood.  Because Frank never explained where he came up with the idea for Dorothy, some people have theorized that she was named after the infant Dorothy who died. And it’s possible that this may have played into Frank’s decision to name his character Dorothy—but this was not the first time he had named a character Dorothy.

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Carpenter family portrait. Magdalena is pictured in the back row.

A book of nonsense rhyme, published before baby Dorothy was born, featured a character named Dorothy.

“Little Dorothy had passed all the few years of her life in the country, and being the only child upon the farm she was allowed to roam about the meadows and woods as she pleased. On the bright summer mornings Dorothy’s mother would tie a sun-bonnet under the girl’s chin, and then she romped away to the fields to amuse herself in her own way.”—L. Frank Baum, Little Bun Rabbit, 1897

What is certain is that Frank did know a girl who lived in a house just like Dorothy’s… his niece, Magdalena Carpenter.

The Baums are gone but their world lives on

Frank Baum died in 1919 with Maud by his side and was buried in Hollywood’s Evergreen cemetery where his grave still attracts visits legions of visitors. Maud Gage Baum lived another thirty years at Ozcot. She died in 1952, at the age of 93 and is buried alongside her husband. Tragically, Ozcot was razed after her death and a nondescript apartment building stands in its place.

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Frank in bed at Ozcot circa 1918/1919