The Wonderful Wizard of 16 to 1

I had always thought of “The Wizard of Oz” as a fairy tale (or as the video for “Dark Side of the Moon”).

In fact, it is an allegory of…bimetallism?

Read on…

(Warning! Simplifications ahead!)

In the 19th century, the United States was on the gold standard, which meant that gold was used as official currency, and that gold backed up the paper money that the United States Treasury issued (in other words, you could go to the local U. S. Treasury office, give them a dollar bill, and get a dollar’s worth of gold for it). The “real” value of a country’s currency (as opposed to its paper value) was ultimately limited to the value of the gold that that country had in its treasury.

In 1893, an economic depression began in the United States that would last until 1898. During the depths of this depression, millions of Americans (including one Frank Baum) passionately advocated one proposed economic solution: inflating the value of the currency by using silver as well as gold as money; or, “bimetallism”.

Silver sentiment had grown swiftly after 1894, sweeping through the South and West […] Pro-silver literature flooded from presses and filled newspaper columns. […] People read, discussed, and believed. […] During 1896 unemployment shot up; farm income and prices fell to the lowest point in the decade. […] Silverites offered a solution, simplistic but compelling: the free and independent coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1.

[…] The ratio of 16 to 1 pegged silver’s value at 16 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold […]. The silverites believed in a quantity theory of money: the amount of money in circulation determined the level of activity in the economy. […] Silver meant prosperity. Added to the currency, it would swell the money stock and quicken the pace of economic activity. […]

[…] Frank Baum, a silverite from Chicago, [wrote] an enduring allegory of the silver movement, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (every person) is carried from drought-stricken Kansas to a strange land of riches and witches. On arrival, she disposes of one witch, the Wicked Witch of the East (with obvious symbolism [the most powerful supporters of the gold standard were on the East Coast]), and frees the Munchkins (the common people) from servitude. To return to Kansas, Dorothy must go to the Emerald City (the national capital, greenback-colored).

She wears silver slippers and follows the yellow brick road, thus achieving a proper parity between silver and gold. A kiss from the good Witch of the North (northern voters) protects her on the way. She meets the Scarecrow (the farmer), who has been told he has no brain, but actually possesses great common sense; the Tin Woodman (the industrial worker), who fears he has become heartless, but discovers the spirit of love and cooperation; and the Cowardly Lion (reformers and politicians), who has lost the courage to fight. When the four companions reach the Emerald City, they find that the feared Wizard (the money power) is only a charlatan, a manipulator, whose power rests on myth and illusion. Dorothy unmasks the Wizard, destroys the wicked Witch of the West (those opposing progress there), and with the help of the good Witch of the South (obvious symbolism again), uses the silver slippers to return home to Kansas. Sadly the slippers are lost in flight. “Oz” was a familiar abbreviation to those involved in the 16 (ounces) to 1 fight.

— R. Hal Williams, Years of decision: American politics in the 1890s, pgs 104-106.

So now I’m wondering…was Elton John’s 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road really about President Nixon’s 1971 decision to completely de-link the value of the American dollar from gold? And, if so, what is the allegorical interpretation of the song “Jamaica Jerk Off”?

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