Segment from Counter Culture

The Wonderful Windows of Oz

Producer Eli Wirtschafter brings us the story of author L. Frank Baum’s very successful career creating other fantasy lands—department store windows.

Read more about this story here.

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

ED: We’ve got stories about buying habits in the nation’s early days, and about the rise first of malls and then of big box stores. But first, we’re going to spend a few more minutes in the years when American department stores were coming in their own, the last few decades of the 19th century. It was then that shopping in many ways was being transformed from an errand to a leisure activity.

PETER: One person who played a central role in that transition was someone you’ve probably heard of before in a very different context, L. Frank Baum, the creator of the original Wizard of Oz. At the very same time Baum was composing that story, he was at the peak of a short but influential career in retail. Reporter Eli Wirtschafter brings us the story.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: It took a long time for Lyman Frank Baum to find the thing that he was good at.

PETER HANFF: He was very good for coming up with schemes.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: This is Peter Hanff, an expert on all things Baum.

PETER HANFF: But one after the other, the things didn’t work out so well.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Theater was his first enthusiasm. He starred in plays he wrote himself and he toured them around the Northeast. For a while he sold axle grease.

PETER HANFF: Baum’s Castorine.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Then he opened up a store in the Dakota Territory.

PETER HANFF: Baum’s Bazaar.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: And when that went bust, he took over a newspaper and ran it into the ground.

PETER HANFF: The problem in part was that he grew up with a very well to do family that went on hard times. And I think he had a taste for fine living, so I think he was constantly looking for new avenues of support.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: In 1891, he moved his family to Chicago and landed a job as a traveling salesman of glassware and crockery. Now, at that very moment, artists, designers, and architects were flooding to Chicago to create the 1893 World’s Fair. That Fair was one of the most dazzling events in history. And during the few months that it lasted, Baum visited again and again.

At its center was the White City, a plaza of white buildings glittering under a new technology, electrical light. On show were all the latest products of American industry. But it was the way that they were shown, not the products themselves, that made the biggest impression on Baum.

KATHLEEN MORAN: It was all about display.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Here’s Kathleen Moran, a professor of American studies at UC Berkeley.

KATHLEEN MORAN: The goods were all put into beautiful array. And I think if anything gave him the idea that that should be not just a fair that’s only once in a lifetime but the way Americans live, it probably was that.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: It was around this time that Baum came up with his latest scheme to strike it rich, and it was all about display. In the 1890s, department stores were taking over Chicago, great big stores with great big windows. Some of these stores were trying to outdo each other with elaborate presentations. But Frank Baum thought that most of them still had no idea what to do with their windows.

KATHLEEN MORAN: They were just filled with jumbled-up stuff. People just piled whatever they had for sale in there. They didn’t have any sense really of decoration or design or display.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Baum realized that he was the perfect person to bring showmanship to retail. He knew about theater, and he knew about sales. And the shopkeepers he talked to every day were constantly telling him about their new gimmicks to attract buyers.

PETER HANFF: And he thought, I’ve heard their ideas. I’m a good writer. I can probably describe to them what they ought to be doing. And I think that’s how it came about.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: So in 1897, Frank Baum launched a magazine called The Show Window. It was a trade journal for window designers, and it quickly became the most influential in its field. Within months, tens of thousands of retailers were reading it. The Show Window featured photographs of the best displays in the country, and detailed instructions on how to create mechanical butterflies, revolving electrical stars, and even magic tricks, like a disembodied head that would float out of the floor and smile and wink at people on the street. Baum wrote that people would find these tricks irresistible.

MALE SPEAKER: People are naturally curious. They will always stop to examine anything that moves and will enjoy studying out the mechanism or wondering how the effect has been obtained.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: One piece of advice he offered was to hire someone to stand and gawk from the street.

MALE SPEAKER: The window gazer must be a good actor. He comes down the street at a swinging pace, glances casually at the window, then abruptly stops to gaze eagerly at the goods displayed. Soon, a crowd accumulates.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Now, a lot of this would have been shocking to Americans at the time, not just the techniques but the purpose behind them. Baum believed in creating desire. And for Protestants, desire was a sin.

KATHLEEN MORAN: He was very anti-Christian, because he believed that people should not deny themselves things. This is really important to the foundation of consumerism. He understood that it wasn’t just about changing the external windows and stores and streets, but about changing us internally.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: The Show Window was such a success that a year later Baum founded the first professional organization for window trimmers. It made the job more respectable, and it gave designers a way to share their ideas. Within a decade or two, every department store in America had fantastic windows. Thousands of people would flock to see the new displays unveiled.

KATHLEEN MORAN: They were wonderment. They were like going to a fair.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: So how do we explain the fact that the same person who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz also changed the face of shopping? Well, for Baum, there was nothing strange about it. With the Oz books, he had set out to write what he called a modernized fairytale with optimistic, forward-thinking values, the same values that made The Show Window a success.

It’s the story of a little girl who gets transported from a life of poverty into an enchanted land where everything is bright and colorful and new. In the original Oz books, Dorothy brings her whole family back to live with her in the Emerald City. And when they get there, this is how Baum describes it.

MALE SPEAKER: Here, everything that was dear to a little girl’s heart was supplied in profusion, and nothing so rich and beautiful could ever have been found in the biggest department stores in America.

KATHLEEN MORAN: The Emerald City is a department store. It’s the greatest department store ever imagined.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: It’s also quite a bit like the White City back at the World’s Fair. In fact, it might actually be a white city. Peter Hanff reminds us that everyone in the Emerald City wears these glasses, which just make everything look green.

PETER HANFF: When Dorothy takes off the green spectacles that everybody in the city must wear and looks down at her gown, it’s no longer green, but white. So we have some clue that there’s a bit of humbuggery going on in the whole thing.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: The people of Oz could take off their glasses at any time, but they’d rather believe in this massive fraud. And The Wizard, of course, is the biggest humbug of them all.

FRANK MORGAN: Yes, it’s exactly so. I’m a humbug.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: There’s the famous line from the 1939 movie, taken straight out of the book.

FRANK MORGAN: No, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.

KATHLEEN MORAN: We all go, yeah. It’s OK. We want to be fooled. That is the foundation of cinema. It’s the foundation of theater. It’s the foundation of entertainment and video games. Please, I know it’s not true, but even so, I want to believe it.

ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: And maybe that’s the foundation of shopping too. When we stare into a window, we let ourselves believe, even though we know it’s not the things we want, but the hopes and dreams that go with them. Frank Baum knew that too.

KATHLEEN MORAN: This is a guy who understood that you don’t sell commodities. You sell fantasies. The American fairytale is about retail.

PETER: That story was brought to us by Eli Wirtschafter. We also heard from Kathleen Moran, a professor of American studies at UC Berkeley; and from Peter Hanff, deputy director of the Bancroft Library. You can read more about Frank Baum, department stores, and the rise of consumer culture in Land of Desire by William Leach.