Ruby Slippers and Yellow Brick Roads

According to the Optical Society of America, it is possible to identify somewhere between 7.5 and 10 million distinct colours. “Ruby” is presumably one of them, but how would we agree on which one it is? In his essay “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” Umberto Eco notes that the majority of attempts to discriminate between colours fail dramatically. In the Farnsworth-Munsell test, which involves categorizing 100 different hues, 68% of the test subjects (colourblind people excluded) make betwee­n 20 and 100 errors; only 16% of subjects make fewer than 16 errors. {{1}}

Even if we could agree on a particular shade like “ruby” (a dubious proposition, evidently) odds are that we wouldn’t be able to discuss it. After pointing out that the majority of the Farnsworth-Munsell test subjects lack the linguistic means to identify even the hundred colours in the test, Eco observes that the largest collection of colour designations in English, A. Maerz and R. Paul’s A Dictionary of Color (New York: Crowell, 1953), assigns names to only 3,000 hues, and that of these 3,000 names, only eight occur in common usage. In other words, “a­verage chromatic competence is better represented by the seven colors of the rainbow.”{{2}}

“The names of colours,” concludes Eco (from these and other scientific, linguistic, and philosophical observations), “taken in themselves, have no precise chromatic content: they must be viewed within the general context of many interacting semiotic systems.” {{3}} So any useful discussions involving the status of “ruby” must immediately move over (the pun is irresistible) the rainbow and into the realm of systems of cultural meaning and exchange.

Which brings us to the Ruby Slippers, the most immediately identifiable North American cultural icon associated with the colour ruby since the making of the film The Wizard of Oz in 1939. But if we can bracket Judy Garland and camp, and the burning question of whether or not there were more than seven pairs of slippers made for the movie for just long enough to compare the film to the source text, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, something much more interesting becomes apparent: the ruby slippers were originally silver.{{4}} This disjunction leads to an examination of the semiotic values of ruby, silver, and gold as signifiers of financial exchange, and how the reading of a key cultural text shifts dramatically because of the seemingly innocuous decision made by one Noel Langley, a screenwriter for MGM, to substitute one of these hues for another.

This isn’t just quibbling over details; there’s a serious argument to be made for reading Baum’s Oz as a complex symbolic allegory describing William Jennings Bryan and the Free Silver Movement of the 1890s, and it all hinges on the fact that Dorothy’s slippers are silver, not ruby.

William Jennings Bryan believed it was unnecessary for the government to maintain gold reserves equal in value to all the paper currency in circulation. During his presidential campaign, Bryan advocated the coinage of silver at a fixed ratio with gold (16 ounces of silver coin for every ounce of gold reserve), which he hoped would break the Eastern banks’ monopoly on gold-based currency, and simultaneously inflate the meager prices that farmers received for their crops, easing their debt burden.

So then: Is reading Oz as a pro-Bryan allegory dabbling in economic conspiracy theory pseudo-criticism worthy of Ezra Pound? Let’s weigh the evidence.

“Oz” is the abbreviation for “ounce,” the official unit of measure for gold and silver. The road to the Emerald City, the seat of fiscal and political power, is made of, um, yellow bricks. You’re beginning to get the idea.

The allegorical reading of Oz was first suggested by historian Henry M. Littlefield in his article “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.”{{5}} Littlefield argues that the characters also lend themselves to allegorical interpretation. Dorothy (everywoman from the Midwest) inadvertently slays the Wicked Witch of the East (the bankers), then heads down the golden road in her new silver shoes (means of circulation) to free the “little people.”

Dorothy accomplishes her task with the help of the Scarecrow (an uneducated farmer), the Tin Woodman (an industrial worker and the epitome of alienated labor. The Woodman was originally a human being, but the Wicked Witch of the East cast a spell on him that caused him to chop off part of his body every time he swung his axe; his flesh was gradually entirely replaced by metal prosthetics that rusted and failed—as did the factories themselves in the 1893 depression) and the Cowardly Lion (Bryan himself, a committed pacifist and anti-imperialist). The Wizard (President) turns out to be a carpet-bagging opportunist, carny, and master of illusions who is eventually debunked by the scarecrow, educated by his recent experiences. Dorothy drowns the Wicked Witch of the West (wiping out the drought) and the Wizard flies away in a balloon full of his own hot air, leaving the government of the land of Oz in the hands of the enlightened triumvirate of Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion.

As with all allegorical interpretations, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line with Oz (as David Antin notes, “Allegory is a very corrupt figure, a figure notably incapable of supporting fact”).{{6}} Over the years, scholars have suggested, with diminishing credibility, that the Flying Monkeys represent the First Nations (“‘Once,’ began the leader, ‘we were a free people, living happily in the great forest, flying from tree to tree, eating nuts and fruit, and doing just as we pleased without calling anybody master.'”), Winkies represent the people of the Philippines (under US control after the Spanish-American War), and even that Toto represents the teetotaling Prohibitionists.{{7}}

Tenuous associations aside, problems with reading Oz as a pro-Bryan allegory arise when scrutinizing Baum’s actual politics. L. Frank Baum was not a particularly political animal, but was known to have marched in several torchlight parades promoting Bryan’s presidential campaign.

The flip side of the coin, though, is detailed in David B. Parker’s article “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism.'”{{8}} Parker provides two pieces of evidence that suggest that Baum was actually a Republican, not a Populist. The first is that in 1890, Baum bought a small newspaper, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Parker remarks that “the Pioneer was obviously a Republican paper. During the municipal elections that spring, Baum editorialized in support of the Republican candidates; after they won, he wrote that ‘Aberdeen has redeemed herself… [a]fter suffering for nearly a year from the incompetence of a democratic administration.'” Later that same year, Baum editorialized against the Independent movement that evolved into the Populists.

The second piece of evidence Parker provides is that on 12 July 1896, the year of the election that would mark what has been called “the Climax of Populism,” Baum published the following anti-silverite poem in the Chicago Times Herald:

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
There’ll be a jollification
Throughout our happy nation
And contentment everywhere!
Great will be our satisfaction
When the “honest-money” faction
Seats McKinley in the chair!

No more the ample crops of grain
That in our granaries have lain
Will seek a purchaser in vain
Or be at mercy of the “bull” or “bear”;
Our merchants won’t be trembling
At the silverites’ dissembling
When McKinley gets the chair!

When McKinley gets the chair, boys,
The magic word “protection”
Will banish all dejection
And free the workingman from every care;
We will gain the world’s respect
When it knows our coin’s “correct”
And McKinley’s in the chair!

Prominent Baum scholar Michael Patrick Hearn quoted this poem in a 1991 letter to the New York Times (20 December 1991), arguing that there is “no evidence that Baum’s story is in any way a Populist allegory” and that Littlefield’s allegory “has no basis in fact.” A month later, Littlefield himself recanted and agreed with Hearn, writing that “there is no basis in fact to consider Baum a supporter of turn-of-the-century Populist ideology.” (New York Times, 7 February 1992).

The real irony, though, doesn’t lie in Parker’s partial deconstruction of Littlefield’s allegory. It lies in the fact that rather than recontextualizing Oz as an ironic or parodic allegory, or pushing the whole argument into a kind of De Manian treatise on allegory and unknowability, Parker turns around and contends that Oz is, in actuality, a Theosophist allegory.{{9}}

Don’cha love academics?

[[1]]Umberto Eco, “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 167.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., pp. 167–168.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., p. 173.[[3]]
[[4]]For information on this history, visit the following websites: (dead link.) (dead link.).[[4]]
[[5]]Henry M. Littlefield, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” American Quarterly, no. 16 (1964), pp. 47–58. The entire text is available online at (dead link.).[[5]]
[[6]]David Antin, Talking at The Boundaries (New York: New Directions, 1976), p. 149.[[6]]
[[7]]See oz14.htm (dead link.) and 6641/ozpopul.html (dead link.).[[7]]
[[8]]David B. Parker, “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism,'” Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians, vol. 15 (1994), pp. 49–63. The complete text is available at Athens/Parthenon/6641/ozpopul.html (dead link).[[8]]
[[9]]See David B. Parker’s “Oz: L. Frank Baum’s Theosophical Utopia,” available at Parthenon/6641/oztheos.html (dead link).[[9]]

(Originally published as “Colors: Ruby (and Beyond)” in Cabinet 4 (Fall 2001).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email