Wamego # 130 April 22, 2021
“A THING OF BEAUTY . . . ”
[Above: The back cover (left) and front cover (right) of the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ – the book by L. Frank Baum, illustrated and designed by W. W. Denslow. This copy is most definitely one of the Treasures from The OZ Museum; it’s the second variant of the binding, but the interior pages all reflect the very first printing of the text. Please read below for details!]
With the publication of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in late summer 1900, L. Frank Baum debuted what has been categorized (ever since) as the first American fairy tale. In the process, he simultaneously -- if unwittingly -- launched a fantasy saga, realm, and cast of characters that has now endured for more than twelve decades. His fourteen Oz novels, thirty-plus Oz short stores, and dozens of other books, stage musicals, and pioneering attempts at multi-media and silent film presentations mark him as a ceaselessly imaginative and unique genius of American juvenile entertainment. Quite simply, Frank Baum was the embodiment of his own philosophy: "To please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one's heart and brings its own reward."
All the original editions of the forty “official” Oz books are now supremely sought-after collectibles, but none so much as the one that launched them all. Thus, the copies of that initial press run of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ currently held by The OZ Museum are indeed cherished. It’s important in discussing the first edition, however, to point out that there were several major reasons for its success – in addition to Baum’s eternal and extraordinary imagination and story. Such a declaration may be summed up in a single sentence:
“THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ . . . was, in 1900, the most lavishly illustrated children’s book ever published in America.”
That quote comes from expert bibliographer, exemplary Baum/Oz historian, and highly regarded university librarian, Peter E. Hanff. It appeared in his knowledgeable appreciation of the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, featured in the Winter 2011 issue of THE BAUM BUGLE: A JOURNAL OF OZ and published by The International Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (ozclub.org). Peter’s opinion is not to be challenged, as the Baum/Denslow assemblage and the lavish design and art created by the illustrator are spectacular in appearance even today.
[Above: One of the twenty-four color plates included in the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. In the very first print run, this picture displayed a couple of blue dots on the forehead of the moon, just above his eyes. These were eliminated before the book was run off a second time; Wamego’s copies include the blue dots!]
Their intention was to bring OZ to life in a splash of riotous color and equally ambitious text-and-art formatting. Children’s books to that date seldom included the vivid (yet carefully arranged) panoply of hues planned by Baum and Denslow. Additionally, they envisioned many such pictures: twenty-four full-color plates and another 150 two-color line drawings throughout the book; on numerous pages, many of the latter extended into or over the text. To manifest control of such a project, Baum and Denslow paid for the book’s printing plates themselves and scrupulously monitored the volume through the Chicago presses utilized by The George M. Hill Company, their publishers.
[Note: There’s no question that Denslow warrants recognition as a preeminent children's book illustrator/designer of the early 20th century. His colorful pictorial approach to the three tomes he did with Baum is proof of such declaration, but Denslow also contributed art to newspapers, magazines, advertising booklets, novel covers, postcards, comic pages, and an outstanding series of storybooks. His concepts of Baum’s Oz characters first defined their charm for countless millions of children.]
[Above: A random page from the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ demonstrates one aspect of its beautiful drawings and design concept: Denslow’s illustrations often served as literal background for Baum’s words.]
The first printing of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in May 1900 was a sort of prepublication “test” of a few thousand copies. One reason for the small initial press run may perhaps be “blamed” on the fact that the book was so elaborate in its presentation that those principally involved wanted to thoroughly vet it for any possible printing snags, color problem, color-over-text inaccuracies, or typographical errors. A second press run was begun almost immediately, however, but not before a change was made in the color of the ink for the publisher’s name on the book’s spine. In the prepublication copies, it was displayed in standard type, in green. Before the second print run, it was redone in red for better definition against the light green cloth cover.
[Above: This is the second version of the spine – for the first edition – of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, with the publisher’s name at the bottom in red.]
Thereafter, there were a number of changes made in the body of the book; Wamego’s copies have the second spine binding, as shown just above – but their interiors contain all of the still-to-be-corrected problems. These include such misprints as “on” for “of” on page 14 (first line); “peices” for “pieces” on page 81 (fourth line from the bottom); and “Tin” for “The” on page 227 (first line).
The foregoing, plus a few art adjustments – please see the Dorothy-parties-with-the-Munchkin illustration note above! – were quickly made, and the refined text also appeared in the book casing with the red GEO. M. HILL CO. on the spine. (Eventually, there was a third and final casing, on which the HILL name was in a more ornate red type font.) Regardless of the particulars, peculiarities, or spine changes, however . . . OZ was a sensation. There were scores of rave reviews, which pretty much equally credited both Baum and Denslow for the book’s success.
And a triumphant it was. Historian/publisher/printer Michael O. Riley has done much investigation into this early “assemblage” of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, and he estimates that the Hill Company did five press runs in all between May 1900 and sometime in 1901, producing more (and perhaps substantially more) than 35,000 copies. All of these are considered the first edition of the book.
Unfortunately, Hill was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1902 -- despite the success of OZ, FATHER GOOSE: HIS BOOK (1899), and DOT AND TOT OF MERRYLAND (1901); the latter two books were Baum/Denslow creations as well. As noted above, however, the author and illustrator owned the OZ printing plates, and when they were able to reclaim them, publication rights were quickly taken by The Bobbs-Merrill Co. in 1903. They changed the title to THE NEW WIZARD OF OZ, which accommodated both the near-unprecedented success of THE WIZARD OF OZ stage musical (which opened in 1902) and the book’s new cover and endpaper designs by Denslow. Sadly, though, their initial edition also dropped eight of Denslow’s color plate illustrations. It was a reasonably handsome volume, but for decades, the George M. Hill Company printings of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ were the only copies of that title that included all the superb pictures and the carefully considered, text-to-art relationship conceptualized and executed by Baum and Denslow.
[Above: Denslow drew twenty-three such full-page chapter openings for THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. The only chapter that didn’t receive that treatment was number twenty-four (“Home Again”), as it consisted of only five sentences and ten lines of type.]
What this tells us is that the glorious first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was only briefly available. Granted, 35,000 (or more) copies is a goodly number. But in those early years, children read many of them to pieces. The twenty-four color plates were “tipped-in” – that is, lightly glued along their inner edge to the following page – and sometimes became detached and were frayed or lost. As a result, today’s collectors find it’s easiest to access a somewhat dilapidated, incomplete copy of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, rather than a perfect one. Beyond that, it’s more of a challenge and expense, of course, to find a complete book -- never mind a complete book in good shape -- never mind a complete book in GREAT shape. And never mind a copy of the first edition/first state in great shape and WITH the green GEO. M. HILL CO. on the spine!
So, The OZ Museum copies (two of ’em, in worn but decent shape) are superlative Treasures -- even with HILL in red!
[Above: All twenty-four chapters of OZ began with Denslow’s hand-lettered first word and an evocative picture.]
Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t (or can’t afford to be) first-edition collectors, Books of Wonder/HarperCollins has marketed a beautiful facsimile copy of the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, with all of its original art. They’ve also reprinted similar, virtual facsimiles of Baum’s thirteen other Oz books, which include every one of their color and black-and-white pictures. The Books of Wonder/HarperCollins output is highly recommended and may be accessed through The OZ Museum: Toll Free: (866) 458-TOTO (8686), local (785) 458-8686, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally: My gratitude to Peter E. Hanff and Michael O. Riley for the research that provided some of the foregoing background information. Additional appreciation goes to Paul R. Bienvenue (with Robert E. Schmidt) for describing much of the early printing history of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ; their findings are included in their own gorgeous publication, THE BOOK COLLECTOR’S GUIDE TO L. FRANK BAUM & OZ (El Segundo, CA: March Hare Books, 2009). And, as ever, Chris Glasgow – curator of The OZ Museum -- was ceaselessly helpful and supportive in the exploration of the Treasures that exist there and make possible this blog.
So . . . the first edition of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ: A thing of beauty?
To be sure!
And “a joy forever”?
Well . . . duh! 😊
Many thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll be with us again next month for another one of “The Treasures from The OZ Museum!”
Article by John Fricke
Article by John Fricke