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Family Parlor & Oz Room


by Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D.
Executive Director, The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation
© 2009 by Sally Roesch Wagner

“Mrs. Baum’s mother was a writer and for several years persistently urged Baum to write his oral yarns on paper,” the Syracuse Herald reported in an interview with Maud Gage Baum shortly before the 1939 release of MGM’s Wizard of Oz. Maud repeated the story on Ripley’s Believe it or Not radio show the same year.1 “Baum might never have become a children’s book writer if not for Matilda Joslyn Gage,” according to preeminent Baum scholar Michael Patrick Hearn. “Her influence is stamped all over the Oz Books. Without her, there might never have been The Wizard of Oz.” 2

L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a noted suffragist who led the National Woman Suffrage Association along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Her work has a surreal quality in its breadth. A supporter of native rights and sovereignty, she was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation. She offered her home as a station on the Underground Railroad and saw injustice and inequality as the cause of all war, which could only be prevented by prefect equality among all people. Challenging the encroachment of religious fundamentalists into the government, she lost her place in history for fighting for the separation of church and state. “This is the woman who was ahead of the women who were ahead of their time,” Gloria Steinem maintains. 3

Beyond telling her son-in-law to write his stories, Matilda’s influence, as Hearn maintains, permeates the Oz books. It is the female leadership, spiritual and political, that runs the country, keeping the peace and seeing to the needs of the people. Glinda, the “good Sorceress of Oz,” practices magic for the good of the people, while Ozma, the rightful ruler, practices politics for their good. The two women rule together. Looking for them one day, Dorothy “found them talking earnestly about the condition of the people, and how to make them more happy and contented-although they were already the happiest and most contented folks in all the world.”4

Matilda began her magnum opus, Woman, Church and State, with a chapter on the “matriarchate,” an egalitarian value system resting on creative female authority. Oz is a matriarchy, an amazing concept when the idea of women even having a political voice, much less authority (outside of Queen Victoria) was controversial. Women in the United States, and most countries in the world, could not vote for the men who represented them at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Matilda gave Frank the blueprint for the land of social justice he created. The vision that his mother-in-law created in Woman, Church and State found its practical application in Oz. Wandering through the pages of the fourteen Oz books, you visit the matriarchal world Gage spent her life trying to create, where women are equal to men; everyone has what they need and gives what they can; morality exists outside the walls of a church; diversity is celebrated and war is not allowed.

Love rules, with respect and justice for all providing the conditions for peace. Embedded in a truly egalitarian system, power in Oz means from, not over. No person or group has power over anyone else. If they do, it’s the problem that the Oz book resolves in order to restore the natural balance and harmony.

The connections between Baum and his mother-in-law range from the good and bad witches of O – which come straight out of the chapter on witches in Gage’s Woman, Church and State to the women’s revolution in the The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), forcing the men to appreciate the difficult nature of housework:

“Hm!” said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. “If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?”

“I really do not know,” replied the man, with a deep sigh. “Perhaps the women are made of cast-iron.”6

On an even deeper level, Baum’s work rests on the cutting edge of gender analysis today, with the deliberate gender confusion of Chick the Cherub in Baum’s non-Oz fantasy John Dough and the Cherub (1906) and Tip’s discovery at the end of the Land of Oz that he is a female trapped in a male body and must undergo a sex change if he is to be his authentic self. Assured that his companions the Tin Woodman, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion will love him every bit as much if he is a girl, and affirmed that girls may be even better than boys, Tip emerges as Ozma to rule Oz with her double-gender vision. What are the chances that a male children’s book author would have so firmly explored gender politics in 1904 without a strong mentor?

What fun Frank the meat-loving epicure must have had over the dining-room table teasing his mother-in-law as she moved toward vegetarianism. The Oz books playfully explore this question of what is appropriate to eat. The Hungry Tiger longs to eat fat babies, but knows it is morally wrong so goes perpetually hungry. Or consider the humorous exchange between Dorothy and Billina the hen over the subject of insects as delicacies in Ozma of Oz 1907.

Knowing the family history, it’s not surprising that Matilda wielded such a strong influence on her son-in-law. Matilda appointed Frank as her literary executor, and he negotiated the posthumous republication of Woman, Church and State. Baum wrote in the first volume of Gage’s Suffrage Scrapbooks, now in the Rare Book room of the Library of Congress,  that her motto: “‘There is a word sweeter than mother, home or heaven; that word is Liberty,’ deserves to be remembered in perpetuity.”7 It is, on her tombstone in the Fayetteville, N.Y., cemetery.

Frank was a newspaper proprietor in Aberdeen when South Dakota men in 1890 decided whether or not to allow the women of the state to vote along with them. His paper, the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, supported woman suffrage, not surprisingly since Frank was Secretary of the Aberdeen Equal Rights society. He reported with a surprising depth of understanding about the division in the woman’s movement between Gage and Susan B. Anthony over the issue of working with religious fundamentalists that same year. Clearly his life was deeply entwined with that of his mother-in-law.

Much of the remarkable story of the relationship between these two historic figures-the author of the great American fairy tale and his radical reformer mother-in-law-rests within the four walls of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home in Fayetteville.

The front parlor is where Frank courted Maud, a bright and strong-minded Cornell sophomore in the spring of 1882. The back parlor echoes with the outraged voice of Maud’s suffragist mother upon learning that her daughter planned to discard her dreams of law school and drop out of Cornell to marry an itinerant actor without any real prospects for supporting a family.

When her daughter threatened to elope, Matilda realized that Maud’s will was as strong as her own. Matilda relented, and she and Frank quickly became close. “Frank addresses me as mother & tells me that I am not to lose a daughter but to gain a son,” Matilda wrote. Matilda and her husband Henry attended a Syracuse performance of Frank’s play, The Maid of Arran, in which he starred, and Matilda reported to her son that she liked the play “very much,” especially the “very beautiful” ship scene.9

The decorated front parlor of the Gage Home was filled with guests on November 9, 1882, as a beaming Matilda warmly welcomed her new son-in-law into the family, giving her daughter Maud the wedding she desired. It was a simple and small ceremony, which the local paper lauded as “one of equality.” In an age when the bride’s vows included a promise to obey her husband, in the Baums’ wedding “the promises required of the bride,” the paper explained, were “precisely the same as those required of the groom,” which came as no surprise to anyone who knew Maud and her mother. 10

The Baums settled in nearby Syracuse after Maud became pregnant, and the Gage house became the couple’s second home. When Matilda’s husband Henry died in 1884, winters alone in the large Gage Home were expensive and lonely, so every winter for the next fourteen years until her death, Matilda closed up her Fayetteville home and lived with her daughter and son-in-law.

It was a close-knit family. Maud, Frank and Matilda read the same books and magazines, attended events together, and shared ideas. Frank became a great champion of his mother-in-law, and after an important convention speech she delivered in Washington, Matilda wrote to Maud, “Spoke this afternoon & tell Frank have been very greatly complimented, both as to subject-matter & voice.”11

The Baums came to live with Matilda at the Gage Home during the summer of 1887. It was a happy time, as Maud cheerfully recuperated from a lingering illness under the care of her mother, who watched the two young Baum boys – nicknamed Bunnie and Robin – as well. The family celebrated the fourth of July traditionally with an ice cream social and fireworks. “Uncle Frank fired them off,” Matilda wrote her granddaughter Leslie, Maud adding: “roman candles. Snakes. skyrockets, pin wheels. colored fire etc.”12

The Baums returned home in August, and Matilda reflected: “It has been quite like old times with Maud and family here this summer.”13

A gifted amateur photographer, Frank photographed the family and the Gage Home throughout the summer. A shot of his mother-in-law’s garden displays such clarity that two Girl Scouts recently earned their Bronze Award for identifying almost all the flowers in the photo and providing the Gage Foundation with a scrapbook of photographs of each variety, along with information for purchasing heirloom seeds to replicate the garden with accuracy. Frank also photographed the front parlor where he and Maud had been married five years before with detail so sharp that one can almost read the label of the wine bottle resting on the floor. He also caught on camera Matilda painting and writing.

Photographs of nineteenth century homes are not common and those that exist generally show only the front exterior. Frank photographed the Gage Home from three sides, along with the view out the front and back doors. To have a series of exterior and interior photographs is rare, and rarer still to have them taken by the creator of the Great American Fairy Tale. These photographs provide a blueprint for the rehabilitation of the Gage Home, purchased by the non-profit Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in 2002. Preparing the Gage Home as a museum, we are returning it as nearly as possible to the home Frank photographed in 1887.

The other homes where Frank lived from Chittenango to Syracuse to Aberdeen, S.D., to Chicago, Coronado and Los Angeles are all destroyed or privately owned. It is only the gracious Greek Revival on the corner of Genesee and Walnut in Fayetteville where he courted and married Maud Gage that remains to tell the story of the creator of the magical world of Oz. In addition to being the only home open to the public where L. Frank Baum lived, the Gage Home is the only public Baum-related site that does regular programming interpreting his work. That gives us a great responsibility as the Oz center of history for the country, which is why we are honored at the Gage Center to keep the memory of this remarkable connection alive, as we tell the story of Frank and Matilda in the Family Parlor/Oz Room of the home where the seeds of Oz were sown by the Mother of Oz.

We invite you to visit us at the Wonderful Home of Oz.

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