Today in Literary History – May 17, 1900 – L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is first published

L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in Chicago by George M. Hill Company on May 17, 1900. Baum gave the first copy that rolled off the presses to his sister, Mary Louise Baum Brewster.

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was illustrated by Baum’s frequent collaborator, W.W. Denslow, who shared equally with Baum in the royalties, albeit under a particularly bad deal. The books sold for $1.50 per copy, but Baum and Denslow only got nine cents each per book.

Hill had published many previous children’s books by Baum and Denslow, but at 10,000 copies the print run for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was unusually large. By October the original 10,000 copies plus a second printing of 15,000 had sold out.

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Hill was banking on big sales because Baum had secured a deal for a lavishly staged “musical extravaganza” set to open in Chicago before moving to Broadway. The play was a huge sensation, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (soon shortened to simply The Wizard of Oz) continued to sell steadily. It was the bestselling children’s book in America during its first two years of publication, selling 90,000 copies.

Ironically, George M. Hill Company went bankrupt in March, 1902, partly because of extravagant but imprudent property investments from its Wizard of Oz windfall. The copyright was then sold to Bobbs-Merrill at a much better royalty structure for Baum and Denslow.

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Baum published 13 more Oz books before his death in 1919 at the age of 62. After his death 19 more authorized Oz books were written by Ruth Plumly Thompson. By the time the original Wizard of Oz entered the public domain in 1956 it had sold over 3 million copies.

The Wizard of Oz had another boost in 1939 when the iconic Hollywood movie was released and became an enormous cultural phenomenon. By then, the world of Oz that Baum had created was well known to the American public.

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The books, particularly the original, still have strong sales today and Baum’s characters have become part of our cultural landscape. Our images of the characters (and their appearance in later illustrated volumes), however, now owe as much to the movie version of the book as they do to Denslow’s original drawings.

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The first Oz book had its beginning, as most children’s books seem to, in the bedtime stories the author told his own children.

Baum told his children fanciful tales about Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, the brainless Scarecrow, etc.

One night, supposedly, Baum’s children asked him where all of these stories took place. According to legend Baum glanced across the room at a filing cabinet with drawers marked A-N and O-Z. Thus was the wonderful world of Oz born.

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