The Wizard of Oz — L. Frank Baum’s book and the beloved 1939 film it inspired — is a quintessentially American fairy tale. It features the hallmarks of a Brothers Grimm story, with a young adventurous child bumping into wizards, witches, and talking animals. Yet it’s unique in how it uses these classic conventions to evoke scenes of middle America: A place of scarecrows, prairies, and hot air balloons. All of this imagery is neatly wrapped into a reflection on the American dream: The idea that brains, heart, and courage — when combined with hard work — can help you reach your dreams. Even when that dream is simply to go back home.
1. The Wizard of Oz canon is huge.
Author L. Frank Baum wrote 14 books about the magical land of Oz, beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, and continuing with later titles such as Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, and Rinkitink in Oz. Many of the novels were published in yearly installments around Christmastime. After Baum died in 1919, a new children’s author — Ruth Plumly Thompson — took up the mantle and wrote another 21 Oz sequels.
2. Baum may have named Oz after a piece of office furniture.
“I have a little cabinet letter file on my desk in front of me,” Baum told the St. Louis Republic in 1903. “I was thinking and wondering about a title for my story, and I had settled on ‘Wizard’ as part of it. My gaze was caught by the gilt letters on the three drawers of the cabinet. The first was A-G; the next drawer was labeled H-N; and on the last were the letters O-Z. And Oz it at once became.” (Some researchers suspect Baum was joking here.)
3. The Oz universe predicted cellular phones.
Baum wrote dozens of other novels and short stories, and he had a knack for predicting an impressive number of inventions in his books: the taser, digital calendars, and defibrillators to name a few. In his novel The Master Key, a character even discovers an augmented reality gadget that predates Pokémon GO by a century. But Baum’s most notable prediction comes in Ozma of Oz:
Shaggy … drew from his pocket a tiny instrument which he placed against his ear.
Ozma, observing this action in her Magic Picture, at once caught up a similar instrument from a table beside her and held it to her own ear. The two instruments recorded the same delicate vibrations of sound and formed a wireless telephone, an invention of the Wizard.
4. Many places claim to be home of the original yellow brick road.
In the late 19th century, yellow brick roads were relatively common. (The color is caused by a low iron content, plus high levels of lime.) So it’s no surprise that many places claim to have inspired Oz’s most famous roadway. Purported locations include Peekskill, New York (where Baum attended a military academy) and Ithaca, New York (where Baum’s wife, Maud, attended college). Baum’s son argued the fictional path took after the cobblestone roads of Holland, Michigan, where his father summered. Other claimants include Dallas, Chicago, and Aberdeen, South Dakota.
5. The character of Dorothy was particularly special to the Baum family.
It’s likely that Baum named the book’s protagonist after his niece, Dorothy Louise Gage, who died in infancy in late 1898. Baum’s wife, Maud, adored the little girl and was so upset by the loss that she needed medical help upon returning from the funeral. It’s believed Baum wrote Dorothy into the story as a way of keeping his niece’s memory alive.
6. The book contains a slick sales pitch.
Before he was writing books and short stories, Baum was working as a traveling salesman for his family’s oil company. The corporation’s No. 1 product was an axle oil called “Baum’s Castorine,” which was advertised as being “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.” It’s in this context that the Tin Woodman (or Tin Man, as he’s called in the film) was likely invented. When Dorothy meets the Tin Man, he badly needs a can of lubricating oil. It’s almost as if Baum couldn’t help himself from making one last sales pitch!
7. The Wizard was partly inspired by an American robber baron.
The Baum family did not get along with John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, whose unscrupulous attempts to squeeze his competitors out of business were, to say the least, not appreciated. As a result, Baum loved poking fun at the oil tycoon. The character of the Wizard, in some ways, is actually a reflection of Rockefeller: A terrifyingly powerful figure who possesses an outsize control of the world around him (but who is, when all is said and done, merely human).
In fact, the wizard’s appearance — “a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face” — may be a cruel joke pointed at Rockefeller, who suffered extremely embarrassing hair loss from alopecia. Other references to Rockefeller are even more explicit. In an early stage adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a rusty Tim Woodman imagines a world without oil. The Scarecrow replies: “You wouldn’t be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller.”
8. The Tin Man contains political overtones.
The book and movie contain other topical references often lost on modern audiences. The book’s Tin Woodman, for example, was a trope in political cartoons of the late 19th century. These “tin people” were a political allegory criticizing the abuses of unfettered capitalism: A symbol of the human worker treated as a machine. While it’s no surprise that Baum evoked imagery commonly seen in mass media at the time, it is surprising how pointed his commentary is. After all, what does the Tin Man — a figure that represents the dehumanization of industry — desperately search for? A heart.
9. Oz went to Broadway immediately.
Baum was determined to turn The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a stage musical. Starting in 1902 — just two years after the original story’s publication — a wildly successful production would open in Chicago, play on Broadway, and tour across the United States. The stage version, however, departed heavily from Baum’s book. It was aimed at an adult audience and was stuffed with explicit political references. It added new characters, including a waitress and a streetcar operator. Toto was replaced by a cow named Imogene. And the Wicked Witch of the West? She’s nowhere to be seen.
10. Baum was a proto-Disney.
Decades before Walt Disney ever dreamt of Disneyland, Baum was already talking about building a magical “Land of Oz” amusement park near San Diego, California. The theme park’s advisory board was reportedly going to be run entirely by children! Baum’s idea never materialized, but an Oz-themed park did exist in North Carolina in the 1970s (and reopens occasionally now).
11. The 1939 film was not the first time Oz had seen the silver screen.
In 1910, with the rise of silent film, the Selig Polyscope Company made the first film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. (Watch the 13-minute film here.) Then in 1925, six years after Baum’s death, another silent adaptation was released loosely based on the book. This effort was, by all objective measures, awful — but it did feature Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man, roughly two years before he paired up with Stan Laurel and became a household name.
12. The 1939 film made many changes to the book.
The famous 1939 film, produced by MGM, shows significantly more fidelity to Baum’s book. However, there are a few notable discrepancies. In the book, for instance, Oz is a real place. But the movie treats it as a mere dreamscape, a creation of Dorothy’s subconscious. Furthermore, in the book, Dorothy’s magic slippers are silver (another possible political nod — the Free Silver movement in the 1890s was seen as a means to boost the economy for the everyday citizen, like Dorothy, rather than the gold standard endorsed by banks). But the film team changed the color to a sparkling ruby to take advantage of the still-new Technicolor process.
13. The origin of the word “Munchkin” might have something to do with beer.
Nobody is entirely sure where the word “Munchkin” came from, but it’s possibly German in origin. (Baum’s father was of German descent.) It may be a reference to Mȕnchner kindl, a popular symbol of a small robed child that’s seen on Munich’s coat of arms and is commonly found on Bavarian beer steins (it translates as “Munich child”). It also may come from the word Männchen, which is used to describe a diminutive man.
14. At first, the screenwriters wanted to eliminate all references to magic.
By the late 1930s, Hollywood had tried producing a handful of fantasy films. Most of them flopped, and some screenwriters worried the same would happen to Wizard of Oz. So, in early scripts, much of the movie’s magical elements were scrapped. The Tin Man, for instance, was transformed into a convict sentenced to wear a tin suit for punishment. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow was a dull human farmhand who was employed to spook birds out of a pasture. Thankfully, the magic returned.
15. The makeup was toxic.
Originally, the role of the Tin Man was to be played by Buddy Ebsen (who later became best known for his role as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies). But the actor quickly realized he was allergic to the aluminum dust in his makeup: After just 10 days, he began complaining of aches and shortness of breath and had to be hospitalized. Ebsen wasn’t the only one who had problems with his makeup. The makeup was so poisonous that some actors could not eat once it had been applied. (They opted for a liquid diet, nourishing themselves through straws.)
16. Dangerous mishaps plagued the set.
In the beginning of the film, the Wicked Witch of the West visits Munchkinland and disappears in flames and a billow of red smoke. The crew accomplished this effect by having the actor, Margaret Hamilton, descend via a secret elevator. Unfortunately, in one of the takes, the fire burst before the elevator had fully descended, causing Hamilton’s green copper-based makeup to catch fire, causing severe burns to her face and hands. One of Hamilton’s doubles would also be injured in a pyrotechnic display.
17. It was impossible to beat the heat.
The Wizard of Oz was not the first film to use Technicolor. It was, however, shot almost entirely inside a studio, which made the Technicolor process exhausting to work with. To get the colors just right, the set has to be brightly lit — in fact, overlit — which baked the studio to temperatures as high as 100 °F. The heat, combined with the heavy costumes and thick makeup, was torturous. (Actor Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion, sweat so much under his nearly 100-pound costume that the whole costume had to be placed in an industrial drying bin each night to pull out all the perspiration.) The hot temperature also made it especially frustrating to work with animals like Cairn terrier Toto, who often refused to comply with directions.
18. The congregation of little people on Oz was unprecedented.
Around 120 little people were cast to appear in Oz. Several met their spouses on set. And it’s said that the mass gathering inspired the formation of an influential new advocacy group, now called Little People of America.
19. That salacious rumor about the Munchkins? It isn’t true.
A pervasive rumor suggested that the actors cast as Munchkins engaged in Bacchanalian orgies at their hotel in Culver City. This isn’t true. The gossip was sparked by Judy Garland during a (fully facetious) 1967 interview with Jack Parr, but the smear would haunt many of the actors for the rest of their lives. When asked if the rumors of drunken debauchery were true, actor Jerry Maren said, "That’s a lot of hooey."
20. The original screening contained a lot more music.
The original screening of The Wizard of Oz was two hours long and contained significantly more musical numbers. But after a test run, the production team decided to cut many dance sequences, song reprises, and a performance of “The Jitterbug.” MGM even considered cutting “Over the Rainbow.” (Thankfully, they were talked out of it.)
21. Some of the costumes were quite delicious.
While many of the costumes were cumbersome (like the Cowardly Lion or the winged monkeys) or required excessive toxic makeup (like the Tin Man or Wicked Witch), some equine members of the cast were pretty pleased with their get-ups. In the “horse of a different color” scene, the special effects that allowed the carriage horse to change from white to purple to red to yellow were achieved by adding Jell-O powder to the horses’ coat. (The horses enjoyed licking it off.)
Also, the Tin Man’s oily tears? That’s actually chocolate syrup.