The Man Behind the Man Behind Oz: W. W. Denslow at 150

The year 2006 marks the 150th birthday of not only L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) but also that of W. W. Denslow, the original illustrator of the Great American Fairy Tale. Although remembered today almost solely for that one work, Denslow made significant contributions to other areas of American commercial art. Denslow was a character. The poet Eunice Tietjens described him as “a delightful old reprobate who looked like a walrus.” He married three times and divorced three times. Alcohol finally did him in. But he produced some of the most important children’s books of his day.

Born in Philadelphia on May 5, 1856, William Wallace Denslow began submitting illustrations to the magazines when he turned 16. He soon developed into an extraordinarily adaptable designer and went wherever the work was. He roamed the countryside drawing lithographs for county atlases in New York and Pennsylvania. He designed theater posters and other advertising in Philadelphia and New York City. When the daily press started using pictures, he went from paper from paper from New York to Chicago to Denver to San Francisco and back to Chicago. He earned his first international reputation for his newspaper, book and magazine posters during the art poster craze of the late 1890s. He was the first professional artist Elbert Hubbard invited to work at the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, New York. There he spent part of the year drawing cartoons, posters and bookplates and decorating limited editions. He supplemented this income by designing dozens of book covers for Rand McNally and supplying hundreds of little pictures for Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalogues. In almost every design could be found his totem—a tiny seahorse.

Denslow did not think much of entering the juvenile field until he met Baum. At the time the author was editing a trade journal for window trimmers, but he wanted to write children’s books. His first, Mother Goose in Prose, came out in 1897, and it was also the first book Maxfield Parrish ever illustrated. Baum and Denslow began working on a book of nonsense verse for boys and girls; but because both author and artist wanted the pictures in color, no Chicago firm was willing to invest in the project. They finally convinced the George M. Hill Co. to publish Father Goose, His Book if Baum and Denslow paid all printing costs. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, it became the best-selling children’s book of 1899.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900 was an even more impressive achievement. As Baum and Denslow were again responsible for all printing costs, they created a truly enticing volume. With its twenty-four colored plates, and two-color headpieces and tailpieces, chapter title pages, and other delightful marginalia, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the most lavishly produced children’s books ever published in America. Baum’s story was a challenge. Denslow admitted that he had to “work out and invent characters, costumes, and a multitude of other details for which there is no data—and there never can be in original fairy tales.” And he succeeded brilliantly. Denslow’s contribution to the book is all the more remarkable when one realizes that he drew all of these pictures in black and white and then had the printers add the colors.

Denslow was first and foremost a comic artist, and Baum’s whimsical characters gave him much to play with. “To make children laugh, you must tell them stories of action,” Denslow explained. “I tell my stories with pictures, and I can often indicate action by expression. Action and expression, then, are two of my mainstays, and when you add the incongruous, you have the triad that I rely on.” His little figures are always doing something, always acting and reacting; and Denslow made the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman his own. “I made twenty-five sketches of those two monkeys before I was satisfied with them,” he explained. “I experimented with all sorts of straw waistcoats and sheet-iron cravats before I was satisfied.” The Cowardly Lion and Toto too demonstrate Denslow’s skill with comparative anatomy. He further enlarged the magic of Oz with his amusing anthropomorphized architecture.

Despite their success together, Baum and Denslow produced only one more children’s book, the pretty fairy tale Dot and Tot of Merryland (1901). The two bitterly clashed over the 1902 musical extravaganza based on their most famous book and went their separate ways. Denslow left for New York where he drew an early Sunday comic strip “Billy Bounce,” cowrote and designed another musical extravaganza The Pearl and the Pumpkin, and continued to illustrate successful children’s books. Denslow’s Mother Goose (1901), Denslow’s Night Before Christmas (1902), and the eighteen volumes of “Denslow’s Picture Books” (1903-1904) were all enormous sellers. With his considerable profits from the plays and books, he bought a small island in Bermuda, built a “castle” on it, and crowned himself King Denslow I of Denslow Island. But all fashions fade. Denslow began drinking heavily as his career went into a slump. He spent his last years working for a third-rate advertising agency in New York, drawing postcards, sheet music covers, advertising booklets, and an occasional magazine illustration. In 1915, he unexpectedly sold a cover to the popular humor weekly Life, went on a bender with the money, caught pneumonia and died. He was only 58 years old.

The children’s book is a true collaborative art. The pictures are as important as the texts. Lewis Carroll had his John Tenniel, A. A. Milne had his E. H. Shephard, and L. Frank Baum had his W. W. Denslow. There might not have been The Wonderful Wizard of Oz if not for the illustrator. Therefore, it is only appropriate that in the year of Baum’s sesquicentennial that we celebrate Denslow too.