In 1900, a little book was published called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by author L. Frank Baum. It became an instant hit and was made into the first movie filmed in technicolor in 1939. Witches, wizards, and flying monkeys have filled the hearts of fans for generations, leading to numerous reincarnations of the beloved story like the mega-hit Broadway musical Wicked.
Whether or not Baum expected the ongoing fame of his story is unknown, but it’s likely that he did have other intentions while penning the fantastic tale through the land of Oz. In the introduction to the book, Baum wrote that it was a story “written solely to pleasure children of today.” However, scholars have found some very convincing parallels between the book and the political landscape of the 1890s Populism movement and agrarian revolt in the midwest.
The book was written following a period of unrest in agriculture and a national debate over gold, silver, and the dollar standard. During this time, banks and industrialists were in favor of the gold standard, while the bulk of the population wanted to introduce silver into circulation to create a bimetallic system. Previously, the legal price of silver had a 16:1 ratio with gold. But when the Coinage Act of 1873 omitted the silver dollar, the shift from a bimetallic system to a gold standard caused that ratio to increase to 40:1. The dollar was linked only to a metal that was becoming more scarce. Farmers were hit particularly hard because they faced a rising debt value and declining agricultural prices. Populists and other proponents of silver advocated that silver coinage would inflate the money supply and make it easier for farmers and small business owners to borrow money and pay off debts.
Many characters and motifs in the book directly relate to these political issues. And while we will never know with certainty if Baum’s intention was to create a political satire about monetary reform, we do know that he was a man with strong political sentiments who marched in demonstrations and wrote other books that satirized social issues like suffrage.
If we follow along with the conclusions made by scholars who have studied the book and the era’s history, each character plays a specific role in the allegory. For instance, the Scarecrow symbolizes the common American farmer and the Tin Man represents American workers. But since Provident is a company focused on precious metals, this article will focus on the metals within The Wizard of Oz and how they relate to the time period’s economics.
While the world is familiar with Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, these shoes were actually silver slippers in the original book (turned red for the movie to take advantage of technicolor). Glinda the Good, the Witch of the North, gave the slippers to Dorothy so she could return to Kansas after her journey through Oz. Using silver slippers as a magical charm to solve Dorothy’s problem has been compared to the Populists’ belief that silver could solve the country’s economic troubles. Dorothy trods atop the Yellow Brick Road, symbolic of gold, wearing her silver slippers. Seeing the colors gold and silver side by side is a reminder that silver was the symbol of overcoming a purely gold standard and its limited money supply.
Yellow Brick Road
As stated above, the Yellow Brick Road is symbolic of gold, which is often referred to as the yellow metal. The individual bricks in the road even resemble gold bars laid end to end. The road winds its way through Oz—an abbreviation for ounce, which is how gold and silver are typically weighed—much like the gold standard was woven into much of American culture at the time. While today gold is a prudent investment tool, the gold standard oppressed much of the population back then. This is why it’s speculated that Baum chose to paint gold as a sort of villain or tool of oppression throughout Oz. Dorothy and her friends are forced to travel the Yellow Brick Road, even when it leads them through dangerous forests. After many twists and turns, the road eventually leads them to the center of Oz—the Emerald City, which is representative of Washington, DC.
Everything inside the walls of the Emerald City radiates in hues of green. This is symbolic of the dollar, or the greenback. Before the Populists began advocating for silver, the Greenback Party advocated to expand the money supply by increasing the circulation of greenbacks. Though not portrayed as a villain like gold, the glorious green imagery is all later revealed to be a facade. The green glasses that Emerald City citizens are required to wear create a mere illusion of splendor. The liquid courage given to the Cowardly Lion from a green bottle turns out to be nothing more than a placebo. The green silk used to patch up the Wizard’s balloon is the equivalent of slapping a bandaid on a larger problem. These Ozian issues correlate to the struggle of real-life farmers who worried that paper money might not solve their troubles. This is a notion that carries over to modern economics, where people invest in precious metals because of the fickle nature of past paper money systems.
Other Metal Imagery
Apart from the references to gold and silver, there’s a smattering of additional references to metal throughout the Ozian tale. One of these is the character of the Tin Man. He was once a human woodman who fell under the Wicked Witch of the East’s curse, under which he lost dexterity and accidentally chopped off his limbs. These appendages were replaced with tin until he was made entirely of metal. He is later given a new axe made of gold and silver. Meanwhile, the Wicked Witch of the West—the familiar green villain—uses both a silver whistle and a golden cap to conjure the flying monkeys that do her bidding. One of her main objectives is to reclaim the silver slippers from Dorothy because they once belonged to her sister, before she died tragically when the twister dropped Dorothy’s house on top of her.
The economic climate of America has changed considerably since the 1890s, along with the roles of gold and silver. An allegorical tale written today would likely look entirely different than the classic tale of Oz. Even so, there’s no denying that precious metals remain valuable commodities. To get your own piece of American silver, check out the 2017 1 oz American Silver Eagle.
The Wizard of Oz is a childhood staple for much of American society. Do you have a favorite memory associated with the book, movie, or any of the following incarnations of the tale? We’d love to hear how this classic has impacted your life.