Wild West

On May 15, 1856, residents of San Francisco organized a Committee of Vigilance to combat crime in their rapidly growing town. Like other gold rush boomtowns, San Francisco’s population explosion raised crime levels and left residents feeling insecure. Although the Committee of Vigilance turned alleged criminals over to law enforcement officials, it is known to have taken matters into its own hands more than once.

[View of San Francisco Harbor]. Sterling C. McIntyre, photographer, Jan. 1851. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

Led by Republican businessmen, the eight thousand-member committee attempted to clean up politics as well as the streets. Perhaps coincidentally, targets of these rehabilitation efforts tended to be Democrats.

Edward McGowan, a former Pennsylvania legislator and police superintendent whose political dealings earned him the nickname “the ballot box stuffer,” was among the Democratic politicians run out of town by the second committee. He told his side of the story in Narrative of Edward McGowan. The account includes a description of his getaway:

My arrangements to leave were all made, and I lay down on the bed, awaiting the arrival of my friends. Presently they came, four in number. I immediately put on a covered California hat, and accompanied them into the street, and high time it was that I did so. The bloodhounds had struck the scent, and were on my track. As I afterward learned, fifteen minutes after I left, the neighborhood was surrounded, and some ten or fifteen braves entered and searched the premises. They were armed with sabers and pistols, and ransacked every hole, nook, and corner, making a terrible to-do and clatter among pots, pans, and kettles, but the bird had flown.

Narrative of Edward McGowan. By Edward McGowan; San Francisco: T.C. Russell, 1917. (reprint of 1857 ed.) California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

Although popular among residents, the Committee of 1856 disbanded after a few months. Hardly unique, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee is just one example of efforts to tame the Wild West.

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L. Frank Baum

Lyman Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was born on May 15, 1856, in Chittenango, New York. The son of a successful entrepreneur, Baum embarked on many careers before beginning to write for children. In his youth, he ran a small printing press to produce a monthly magazine for family and friends. As an adult, his creative work as an actor, playwright, and journalist was interspersed with commercial pursuits including poultry farming, store keeping, and window dressing.

“Come along, Toto,” she said.
“We will go to the Emerald City and ask the Great Oz how to get back to Kansas again.”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Chapter 3, by L. Frank Baum. Chicago; New York: G.M. Hill Co., 1900, c1899. Rare Book Selections. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

L. Frank Baum, three-quarter-length portrait, seated, facing slightly left. F.S. & M.V. Fox, Chicago, Ill., c1908. Prints & Photographs Division

Baum’s career as a children’s author began with the 1897 publication of Mother Goose in Prose. The book sold well, and Baum followed it in 1899 with the poetry collection Father Goose: His Book. Although Father Goose was the children’s bestseller of the year, it was soon overshadowed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). The demand for additional stories about Dorothy and her friends was so great that Baum wrote thirteen more Oz books. Other fictional works created for boys and girls were published by Baum under the pen names “Floyd Akers” and “Edith Van Dyne.” After Baum’s death in 1919, a new generation of authors continued the Oz series as well as several of Baum’s other story lines.

Oz As Allegory

Is the Wonderful Wizard of Oz a political allegory of the turbulent 1890s? In a 1964 American Quarterly article, Henry M. Littlefield suggested this wonderful American fairy tale spoke to the political and economic climate that produced the Populist movement. “Wizard of Oz: Parable On Populism” noted Baum’s years as a journalist in drought ravaged rural South Dakota, and his residence in Chicago during the Democratic convention that nominated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in 1896. According to Littlefield, signs of Baum’s time are obvious throughout the first Oz book. For example, Dorothy hails from the Populist hotbed of Kansas, and she travels a yellow brick road symbolic of the gold standard. Yet, it is her silver slippers—representing the free coinage of silver championed by the People’s Party—that ultimately save her. Political commentary serves the story, Littlefield maintains, but fortunately, Baum never allows it to overwhelm the fantasy.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by Lyman Frank Baum. Chicago and New York: G. M. Hill, 1900. Imagination Gallery B. American Treasures of the Library of Congress

The Wizard of Oz debuted on stage long before the famous 1939 MGM film. On June 16, 1902, The Wizard of Oz opened at the Grand Opera House in Chicago. Produced by Fred Hamlin, written by Baum, with music by Paul Tietjens, the play was a hit. After its January 1903 Broadway premiere, the production tallied over 290 performances. It was the longest running show of the decade. The musical focused on the Tin Woodsman and Scarecrow, rather than Dorothy, advancing the careers of David Montgomery and Fred Stone—the vaudeville team tapped for the roles. Throughout the 1910s, traveling road companies brought the The Wizard of Oz to cities and towns across the country. In fact, the play was so successful and so well known that subsequent editions of the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz were retitled The Wizard of Oz to reflect the popularity of the stage production.

Fred R. Hamlin’s Musical Extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz. Fred R. Hamlin; Cincinnati; New York: U.S. Lithograph Co., c1903. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division
Fred R. Hamlin’s Musical Extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz. Fred R. Hamlin; Cincinnati; New York: U.S. Lithograph Co., c1903. Posters: Performing Arts Posters. Prints & Photographs Division

Attempts to capture The Wizard of Oz on film date to 1910, when the Selig Polyscope Company created four one-reel silent movies based on the Wizard and other Oz books. In 1914, L. Frank Baum founded his own Hollywood film company. Its five silent features and several shorts based on Baum’s stories were not successful — Baum sold the studio to Universal in 1915. In 1925, yet another silent film version also disappointed at the box office.

The 1939 MGM production starring Judy Garland as Dorothy was an immediate success. With its brilliant use of Technicolor, talented cast, and respectful editing of Baum’s story, The Wizard of Oz quickly became a classic. Shown again and again on television, the film has been seen by millions of viewers and in 2006 was heralded by the American Film Institute as the third favorite Greatest Movie Musical of all time.

Ruby Slippers from MGM Film. Original costume from The Wizard of Oz, 1939. Silk, leather, sequins, and rhinestones. Courtesy of Philip Samuels, St. Louis, Missouri. The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale
Baum’s Dorothy wore silver slippers (see above). Because silver contrasted poorly with the yellow brick road, Judy Garland sported ruby slippers.
Wizard of Oz Monopoly® Game. Hasbro, 1999. Courtesy of Warner Brothers. The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale
The first Oz novelties — brass jewel boxes with tiny Cowardly Lions mounted on the lids — were presented to ladies in the audience of the 100th performance of The Wizard of Oz musical. The 1939 movie version has inspired thousands of such products.

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  • Visit The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairy Tale — the online companion to the Library of Congress exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of this timeless American classic.
  • Examine a playbill from one of the early Wizard of Oz stage productions. Search the collection American Variety Stage on Wizard of Oz to retrieve several playbills from musical productions of the book.
  • Watch the actors who played the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow battle it out. Dancing Boxing Match shows the vaudeville team of David Montgomery and Fred Stone at work.
  • The text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other Oz tales can be found through the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page External.

Sholem Aleichem, Beloved Yiddish Author

When in May of 1916, the much-loved Yiddish author and humorist Sholem Aleichem died at his home in the Bronx, the collective outpouring of grief was immediate. Two days later, on the 15th of May, 1916, as many as 250,000 people filled the streets, sidewalks, and rooftops of New York City for his funeral procession—until that time, the largest ever recorded.  In what one author has called “a national pageant,” Sholem Aleichem’s cortege made its way from the Bronx through Harlem to the Lower East Side, and then across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, to the Mt. Nebo (now Mt. Carmel) Cemetery in Queens, passing countless windows draped in black and stopping five times along the route to hold memorial services.

ש. ראבינאוויץ (שלום עליכם) [S. Rabinowitz (Sholem Aleichem)] External, postcard, n.d. William A. Rosenthall Judaica Collection—Postcards External, College of Charleston Libraries

Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of one Solomon Rabinowitz, originally born to a Jewish family in Pereyaslav, Ukraine in 1859. He grew up in a shtetl (village) called Voronkov that would later serve as a model for his fiction. After building a career in Europe as an advocate for literature written in Yiddish, the everyday language of Jews in Eastern Europe, Rabinowitz came with his  family to New York in 1914  to escape the dangers of the First World War. By this time, he had authored such classic Yiddish works as Motl Peysi dem Khazns (Motl the Cantor’s Son) and Tevye der Milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman), as well as epistolary novels, plays, and many stories and essays that appeared in the press across the Yiddish-speaking world. Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye, his wife Golda, and their five daughters, formed the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964), now listed on the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, and the subsequent award-winning movie of the same name (1971).

Sholem Aleichem’s renown grew in part from his ability to draw on the folk culture of his youth, at a time when Jews of the Russian Empire faced dramatic cultural change. As a young man, Rabinowitz was drawn to writing and had intended to publish in Hebrew or Russian, but tried his hand at the vernacular Yiddish because of its broader reach within the Jewish population. There he found immediate success. The name “Sholem Aleichem” is a pun because while Sholem is a Yiddish variant on the Hebrew first name Solomon, the two-word phrase is a standard greeting meaning “how do you do” and also “peace be with you.” This pseudonym set the tone for the humorous work that defined his popularity, but Rabinowitz had loftier goals as well. Writing as Sholem Aleichem, he sought to elevate the quality and quantity of works natively written in Yiddish—by himself and by others—and in this way played an instrumental role in shaping the  body of work now recognized as modern Yiddish literature.

From the time of his first visit to America in 1906, Sholem Aleichem was hailed as “the Yiddish Mark Twain” in recognition of his style, his influence, and his celebrity. “Russia Too Sad for Humorist,” proclaimed one headline after he settled in the Bronx. His public performance as a cultural icon was unerring, evoking a nostalgia for a Yiddish way of being that was at once utterly familiar and already starting to change in its new environment.  He played to stereotypes, but lovingly. As reported in New-York Tribune’s Sunday magazine, “A short time before his death, a newspaper man visited Sholem Aleichem for an interview. ‘Interview me?’ asked the little man. ‘What shall I tell you? I am a Yiddish writer. They say that I am a humorist; that I make others laugh, and—I weep. Tell me. Can a Yiddish writer make a living in this country?'”

“Russia Too Sad for Humorist,” The Day Book, April 16, 1915. Detail, p. 21. Chronicling America, Newspaper & Current Periodical

New York City in 1916 was home to a a vibrant and expansive Jewish immigrant community of more than 1.5 million souls, centered not only in the Lower East Side, but in East Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens as well—where the Yiddish-speaking populace was often at odds over matters ranging from religious orthodoxy to political orientation to cultural aesthetics. Yiddish journalism in the city had peaked the year before, when five separate daily newspapers boasted a combined circulation of half a million readers. It is estimated that as many as 2.5 million Jews emigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924, most of those Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe, and many of them making an abrupt transition from shtetl life to the crowded bustle of urban tenement houses and jobs in factories. All manner of institutions arose to meet their needs, from synagogues to mutual aid societies and landsmanshaftn, to trade unions, social and cultural clubs, and a thriving Yiddish theater scene driving an outpouring of printed Yiddish sheet music.  Sholem Aleichem’s massive funeral procession marked a culture at its height, but also at the cusp of its transition.

While American Yiddish culture flowered, changes to immigration laws in the early 1920s drastically curtailed the arrival of Eastern European Jews to the United States. Then, with the decimation of Jewish communities in Europe during World War II, the Americas (both North and South) became the center of the world’s largest Yiddish speaking populations. Yet, a combination of assimilation over generations, and the adoption of modern Hebrew as the language of the new state of Israel, led to a sharp decline in the use of Yiddish as a daily language by the end of the Twentieth Century. About a quarter of a million Yiddish speakers live in the United States today, many of them members of traditional Hasidic communities. Today there is a revival of Yiddish as a second language both in the United States and in Europe, driven in part by the revival of distinctively Jewish klezmer music as well as Jewish genealogy External. Today, U.S. institutions such as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research External (founded originally in Vilna, Lithuania in 1925 before it moved to New York) and the Yiddish Book Center External work to keep Yiddish and its legacy—including the legacy of Sholem Aleichem—alive.

The Yiddish Book Center and Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts was founded in 1980, and as a nonprofit center it works to recover, celebrate, and regenerate Yiddish and modern Jewish literature and culture. Carol M. Highsmith, photograph, 2019. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Prints & Photographs

Sholem Aleichem’s will was written in 1915 following the sudden death of his eldest son, and published in the New York Times External the day after his funeral. In it, he asked to be buried not among aristocrats, but commoners, “among the very people itself.” For his gravestone External, he wrote a rhymed Yiddish epitaph External, that says in part: “Here lies a plain and simple Jew / Who wrote in plain and simple prose… And while his grateful readers laughed… He wept in secret and alone.” He also asks that no monument be erected to his memory, stating “The best monument for me will be if my works are read.” Most notably, Sholem Aleichem envisions family and friends continuing to celebrate his life and art with humor. If, on the anniversary of his death, his sons do not wish to engage in traditional prayers, he offers a specific alternative:

[T]hey can be absolved from this duty only if they all come together with my daughters and my grandchildren and with good friends, and read this my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the really joyous ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they understand best.

Here, in this reference to “whatever language they understand best,” he recognizes the changing role of Yiddish, and the cosmopolitan nature of Jewish cultural survival, in the coming centuries.

Sholem Aleichem is only known for one lullaby, “Shlof Mayn Kind” (“Sleep My Child”). It tells the story of a sad mother singing to her child: Someday you will understand my tears, she sings. Your father is far away in America, and you are still small. They say that America is a paradise for the Jews—that they eat challah every day. He will send us twenty dollars and his photo, and he will bring us there. Until then, sleep, it is good. Included in the National Jukebox, an early recording from 1916 performed by Jakov M. Medvedieff in Yiddish with a simple orchestral accompaniment, conveys the poignancy of the sentiment—and of the moment of Sholem Aleichem’s passing that same year. Please do listen!

Shlof Main Kind, Sholem Aleichem, lyrics; Jakov M. Medvedieff, music; Jakov M. Medvedieff, vocalist. Victor Talking Records Company, 1916. National Jukebox, Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division

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