13 Facts About L. Frank Baum’s ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’

‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ was the ‘Harry Potter’ of its day.

The cover of L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’
The cover of L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’ / Penguin Random House (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was a hit from the start. Published in 1900, the story of Dorothy and her friends the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion captured the public’s imagination. It wasn’t long before there was merchandising, a Broadway musical, a silent film, and a whopping 13 sequels. Here‘s what you should know about the book.

1. L. Frank Baum framed the pencil he used to write the novel. 

Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919) american novelist author of The wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919), American novelist and author of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900). / Apic/GettyImages

L. Frank Baum—former chicken rancher, traveling salesman, and theater manager—had already published two successful children’s books when he started The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1898. He finished the book in October 1899—and he must have been proud of his work, because he framed the pencil stub and hung it on the wall of his study. On the attached paper he scrawled, “With this pencil I wrote the manuscript of The Emerald City.” 

2. Baum struggled to find the right name for his book.

The author had a hard time deciding on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for his title. Initially, he called the book The City of Oz, then The Emerald City, but his publisher wasn’t a fan (some say because of a superstition among publishers that no book with a jewel in the title would sell well). Baum tried From Kansas to Fairyland and The Land of Oz before finally going with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

3. He said he got the name Oz from his filing cabinet.

Three years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came out, Baum recalled how he came up with the name Oz: He was looking at the filing cabinet in his study. There were three drawers marked “A to G,” “H to N,” and “O to Z.” And so Oz was born. (That said, how Baum came up with Oz is a surprisingly controversial topic; there are some discrepancies in his tale, not to mention several competing theories.)

4. Dorothy Gale may have been named after a niece who died.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
‘The Wizard of Oz’ by L. Frank Baum. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Dorothy Gale may have gotten her name from Dorothy Gage, the infant niece of Baum’s wife, Maud. She died in November 1898 as Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

5. Baum based his book in Kansas even though he’d never lived there.

Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Chicago—in fact, he’d only been to Kansas once, when he and Maud were touring with his melodrama The Maid of Arran. (Baum wrote, directed, and even starred in it.) So why Kansas? According to Baum biographer Katharine M. Rogers, he may have chosen that state over South Dakota, where he lived for several years, out of respect for his relatives still living there: “It was appropriate to move her to Kansas, where conditions were similar, because the Kansas editor William Allen White had recently lambasted his state's poverty and hopelessness in an editorial ‘What's the Matter with Kansas?‘ This editorial was highly praised and widely reprinted, so it gave Kansas a particular topical interest.” Or maybe it was because of cyclones that ripped through the state in the 1890s: In a piece about the book, Gore Vidal wrote that “Newspaper accounts of recent cyclones had obviously impressed Baum.”

6. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an episodic novel. 

Throughout Baum’s episodic novel, Dorothy follows a yellow brick road, which runs straight through the story. Periodically she goes off the road, has an adventure, then returns and continues her journey. Along the way, she meets a host of almost-forgotten characters, such as the Queen of the Field Mice, people made out of china, and the Kalidahs—creatures with the bodies of bears and the heads of tigers.

7. Baum assembled the first copy of the book himself.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The cover of ‘The Wizard of Oz / Culture Club/GettyImages

When the first print of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came off the press in May 1900, Baum was there to compile the pages. He then gave the book to his sister, Mary Louise Baum Brewster, writing on the manuscript, “This ‘dummy’ ... was made from sheets I gathered from the press as fast as printed and bound up by hand. It is really the very first book ever made of this story.”

8. The book sold out in two weeks.

Full distribution of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz began in August. According to the publisher, the first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in two weeks, followed by a second printing of 15,000 and a third printing of 10,000. In November, there was a fourth printing of 30,000, and in January, a fifth printing of 25,000. That’s 90,000 books in the first six months. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remained a bestseller for two years. 

9. Baum followed up with The Wizard of Oz: The 1903 Musical Extravaganza.

Along with illustrator W.W. Denslow and composer Paul Tietjens, Baum set out to turn his book into a musical. Fred Hamlin, producer of the Grand Opera House in Chicago, is said to have taken on the play because the word Wizard was in the title. Apparently his family had made a fortune with the medical tonic Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. The Wizard of Oz opened in June 1902 in Chicago. Then it moved to Broadway, where it played for years. 

10. Baum had a falling out with his illustrator.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Illustration by W.W. Denslow from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ by L. Frank Baum. / Culture Club/GettyImages

W.W. Denslow first worked with Baum illustrating 1899's Father Goose: His Book, a surprise bestseller. Denslow then illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The men believed in the images so much that when the publisher balked on paying for color print, Denslow and Baum paid for the plates themselves. But as the two shared copyright for the book, they soon had a disagreement over who was responsible for its success. Tensions mounted during the musical, with Denslow insisting that as the costume designer, he should be paid the same as the writer and composer. The two men never worked together again. 

11. Baum kept writing sequels because of money problems.

Baum soon grew tired of writing the series and intended to stop after the sixth book, The Emerald City of Oz. But a year later, he filed for bankruptcy and had to resume writing the Oz books. The last sequel was Glinda of Oz, which was published posthumously in 1920. 

All and all, Baum was a prolific writer. He also wrote under several pseudonyms, including Edith van Dyne, author of the Aunt Jane’s Nieces series. In the end, he wrote over 50 novels, 80 short stories, hundreds of poems, and at least a dozen plays. 

12. In the book, Dorothy’s shoes were silver, not ruby red.

Ruby Slippers From "The Wizard Of Oz" Taken Off View From The Smithsonian's National Museum Of American History
Ruby Slippers From ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. / Kris Connor/GettyImages

In the book, Dorothy is given “silver shoes with pointed toes.” The color was changed for the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland because the filmmakers thought that ruby red looked better in Technicolor.

That wasn’t the only difference between the movie and the book: In the book, Dorothy doesn’t meet Glinda until the end; rather, the Good Witch of the North is the one to greet her when she comes to Oz. The book doesn’t end with the wizard taking off in a hot air balloon—Dorothy travels south to find Glinda and has more adventures. And while Oz turns out to be a dream in the movie, it’s a real place in the book. When Aunt Em asks Dorothy where she came from, she says that she was in the Land of Oz, then adds, “I'm so glad to be at home again!" (“There’s no place like home” is a movie line.)

13. You can watch the first film version of The Wizard of Oz.

Here’s a silent film version of the book, which was made by Selig Polyscope Company in 1910.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.