Wisher of Glass
In Chicago, the Lake—Lake Michigan—is a page that will not quite let you read it: transparently benign, shallowly reflective, apparently tideless. A neutral space or body seems to beckon from it, without demanding, and so the August crowds can loll on the Lake’s sandy banks without a qualm.
This is unlike the secreted surging of oceans, for usually one can see or even easily touch the Lake’s bottom. This Lake has no true depths: the scope is safely horizontal, knee-deep. You can see down through it to count each minnow as it sallowly wanders under water, where there is no further under to ponder.
If the Lake is a book, with broad, flat, clear pages outspread, then it is the kind of book that requires of a writer to appear with a brimming pen—a poised and furious pen—and with a forbearing whim to design and revise watery square mileage. Surely there is room to improvise here with a free hand. (There is room, and also there is an invitation. To improvise seems obligatory, since the Lake’s body shifts slightly all the time.)
One must adjust to outward signs of liquid drift by inventing signs of one’s own, by writing them.
Yes, one might as well paddle with the pen on the page of Lake Michigan.
Pen or no pen, before L. Frank Baum began the writing for which he is now known, he sold other wares on other shores, fishing inland in Pennsylvania, New York state, and New York City.
And he sold his wares in Dakota Territory.
Baum’s Bazaar, a small general store in Aberdeen, Dakota, gave sole proprietor Baum a roost amid his wife’s extended family from 1888 to 1890. Hers had gone to Aberdeen to seek their fortunes. Although both Mrs. Baum and Mr. Baum hailed from the outskirts of Syracuse, New York—and although Baum had already pursued careers (failing mostly) as an actor in swashbuckling melodrama, as a theater manager, as an axle-grease salesman, and as a prizewinning chicken breeder—he came to Dakota to start again.
The store was typical of others across America: Baum stocked in the Bazaar as many goods of as many uses as he had room for. The store occupied the ground-level quarters of a two-storey wooden house in downtown Aberdeen, then a community of three thousand. An ample double-door was flanked on either side by large four-paned windows, offering passersby a view inside whether or not they meant to enter, to buy.
Baum’s Bazaar amused the careworn. As a pioneer town at the edge of settled territory during an era of periodic intense conflicts among white settlers and Native Americans, Aberdeen held on to its few comforts. The punitive climate of the Dakotas; the frequent droughts and crop failures; the speculative mania of would-be miners, and their subsequent disappointments; isolation, unremitting for settlers—against these demands and others Baum built up a modest bulwark in dry goods at his Bazaar.
That bulwark was a body, mounded helter-skelter in the windows of his store and parceled out to smiling, tight-pursed friends and neighbors. Yet the bulwark was also something more: Baum’s store offered the prairie a fiction. An early advertisement for Baum’s Bazaar, penned by Baum, ran as follows.
Always in stock—
G.A.R. Flags Japanese Goods
Chinese Lanterns Children’s Carriages
Express Wagons The Grendon Velocipede
Crockery Girls and Misses Tricycles
Glassware Spalding’s Sporting Goods
Tinware Store and House Awnings
Lamps Household Goods
Books—Stationery Fancy Goods
Toys Cigars and Cigarettes
Confectionary Ice Cream and Sodas
Candy Cuspidors, Hand Painted
And Solid Brass
Baum’s store offered the prairie a fiction, a commodity fiction staged by the former theater manager.
Baum’s commodity fiction was lit and guided by Chinese lanterns. Chinese lanterns? The durably smoky kerosene lamps and the piecemeal candlelight of roaming Westerners by habit guided their survival dimly with mechanical optimism and with mechanical options, also. Those everyday tools, however, did not give the eye insight. A Chinese lantern, on the other hand, basked in being looked at, and displayed light as a “dry good” no less essential for the imagination than a matchstick for a February morning. To look at something well worth looking at, for no other reason than to look at it—this was an escapade for the Dakotans.
If scanned with a proprietary generosity of mind, Baum’s list of wares also provided (and provides) other escapades. Cuspidors, Hand-Painted and Solid Brass, an item on his list, may suggest to the Borgesian traveler of an American past a sort of gilded jaunt down the drain not without aesthetic happiness. Why not just spit in Aberdeen’s dust, in its abundant snow, slush, and mud? Because the act of spitting could instead be marked with a conscious flourishing of procrustean patriarchal zeal—via the cuspidor. This was the age of coveting, after all, and of the reign of William Randolph Hearst. Splendor was an object for the culture. Because it gushed, spit qualified as such.
Set aright on the oceanic flatness of Dakota, the malarkey mirage of Baum’s Grendon Velocipede might also have engorged the eye with low-flying whimsy. Although too large to fit neatly into a storefront window display, the velocipede—a giant-size tricycle intended by adults for others of their kind—could carry fantasy safely, even across the wracked ruts of Aberdeen. Flaunting the classical axial radiance of its colossal wheels, the promenading Grendon gave a Beaux-Arts gravity to the cornfield. The velocipede balanced on the earth’s crust as if nonchalance were homemade.
Sometimes while keeping shop, Baum also wrote, as if seated upon one of his Grendons and able to see ticklishly far. An advertisement for Baum’s Bazaar appeared in a local Aberdeen newspaper shortly before Easter on April 19, 1889. In it Baum proclaimed:
Aberdeen stands upon the threshold of the grandest era in her
history. About her are millions of acres covered with tender ambi-
tious shoots of infant grain e’n now thrusting their delicate heads
above the generous soil to bring our city wealth and prosperity. The
tinkle and buzz in our ears of hundreds of hammers and saws—
wielded by lusty arms—assure her greatness and extent . . . .
The sun of Aberdeen is rising; its powerful and all-reaching beams
shall shed its glory all over the length and breadth of the continent,
and draw the wondering eyes of all nations to our beautiful hub.
And that reminds us that hubs—or hubbies rather—should
see that their wives and families are supplied on Easter day with
some of those delicious Flowers and Plants we have. Easter is
the season of flowers—don’t neglect it.
A fiction is a fiction is a fiction. In 1890, Baum’s Bazaar went bankrupt.
A year later, after the failure of yet another business venture, Baum peddled off to Chicago.
A French visitor to Chicago in 1893 was only one of many to study the city with all of his available eyes. Wrote Paul Bourget in Outre-Mer: Impressions of America:
Last night, when the conductor called out the name of the station
at which I was to leave the train, a frightful storm, such as one
experiences nowhere but in America, was deluging the whole country
with cataracts of water, and between the station and the hotel I could
see nothing but the outlines of gigantic buildings hanging, as it were,
from a dark sky streaked with lightning, and between them small
wooden houses, so frail that it seemed as if the furious wind must
scatter their ruins to the four quarters of the tempest-tossed city.
This morning the sky is clear, with a soft, warm clearness, washed
clean by the rain. It brings out all the more strikingly the dark
coloring of the city, as it is reflected back from the deeper azure of
Lake Michigan, ploughed with steamboats like a sea. Far as the eye
can reach Chicago stretches away, its flat roofs and its smoke—
innumerable columns of whitey-gray smoke. They rise straight
upward, then stoop to heap themselves into vapory capitals, and
at last meet together in a dome above the endless avenues.
It needs but a few minutes for the eyes to become accustomed to
the strange scene. Then you discern differences of height among
these levels. Those of only six or seven stories seem to be the merest
cottages, those of two stories are not to be distinguished from the
pavement, while the “buildings” fourteen, fifteen, twenty stories, uprise
like the islands of the Cyclades as seen from the mountains of
A mighty murmur uprises from below like that of no other city.
There is an incessant tinkle of locomotive bells, that seem to be
sounding in advance the knell of those they are about to crash. They
are everywhere, crossing the streets, following the lake shore, passing
over the river which rolls its leaden waters under soot-colored bridges,
meeting and crossing each other’s tracks, pursuing and overtaking one
another. Now you distinguish an elevated road, and there, beside
the railways on the level of the street, you see other trains on the
avenues, three or four cars long, but without locomotive. It is the
cable system. And there are steamers lowering their yards and coming
to anchor in the harbor.
Yes, the scene is strange even to unreality, when one reminds
oneself that this Babel of industry grew out of a tiny frontier post,
Fort Dearborn . . . . In 1871, . . . there was fire writhing around this
very place where I am standing this bright morning. The irresistible
devouring force of one of the most terrific conflagrations mentioned
in history transformed this entire plain into a burning mass which
still smoked after many days had passed.
. . . . [Chicago] seems like the work of some impersonal power,
irresistible, unconscious, like a force of nature, in whose service
man was merely a passive instrument.
This power is nothing else than that business fever which here
throbs at will, with an unbridled violence like that of an uncontrollable
element. It rushes along these streets, as once before the devouring
flame of fire; it quivers; it makes itself visible with an intensity
which lends something tragical to this city, and makes it seem like
a poem to me.
Baum too felt the intemperate sway of Chicago, the city that burned in 1871 only to return.
The Chicago Fire, beginning at 137 De Koven Street on October 8, 1871, destroyed the city’s downtown, an area four miles long and two-thirds of a mile wide. Property loss was estimated at $200 million. A hundred thousand city dwellers lost their homes. A less tangible casualty: urban motley pride. For the moment, a spark trashed hubris for miles around.
The Fire, though, also cleared an open space for public viewing. The city and its future could be seen, as through a smoky window.
Following the Fire, rebuilding Chicago gave unforeseen scope to civic fantasy, now newly plausible. There were to be no more wooden shanties. Instead, the steel-and-masonry skyscraper entered the scene, and with it the novel vastness of well-girthed, block-long department stores.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, intended to herald the city’s resurgence, gathered “the contents of a great dry goods store mixed up with the contents of museums.” More than twelve million people from around the world attended the Fair, a grandiloquent Beaux-Arts display of monumentally white exhibition buildings constructed of steel-reinforced plaster and jute fiber—relatively easy to put up, easy to tear down. Arrayed on a plot of former Lake Michigan marshland two miles square, the Exposition bragged a single edifice, the Manufacturer’s building, said to be the world’s very largest. Newfangled electric lighting (arc and incandescent) ignited the White City’s storehouses with tens of thousands of lamps.
A new city displaced an old one. Baum was there to see it.
Another part of what Baum saw when he looked at Chicago were the telltale signs of that city’s “business fever,” as Bourget described it. The intensity of buying and selling in Chicago of Baum’s era helped to form him as a writer. On Wabash Avenue he caught sight of a commercial sublime. The beauty of commodity enticed him.
The beauty of commodity was still novel by 1900, when Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and when Theodore Dreiser published Sister Carrie. The two novels could not easily have been more different. Baum wrote a quest fantasy in a wryly urbane tone, intended nominally for children, that made his name and his fortune. Dreiser wrote a work of tragic Naturalism, as if left in a grim mood after having read Zola; his unabashed depiction of urban brutality stirred scandal and won him censorship. Yet each book was written in response to Chicago as a new commodity capital.
The brightness of commodity can blind, almost. As if portraying a White City dyed green, Baum offered a mock-allegorical idealized Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that requires all visitors of its domain to don green spectacles before they can perceive (or believe in) the democratic enclave’s totalizing charms; they must agree to be duped (charmed) before they can be. Once they agree, and only if they do, green begins to look very green indeed, the city beautiful emerges, too, and happiness comes with it. Although Dreiser’s Carrie Meeker, questing to Chicago in 1889 at age eighteen, wears no green eyeshades, she doesn’t need to: at first she wears her innocence to shield her eyes from Chicago. Like Baum and like Dreiser, Carrie ventures to Chicago as an adult and as an outsider. Like Baum and Dreiser, what she first notices about the city is its size, both wonderful and perilous:
In 1889 Chicago had the peculiar qualifications of growth which
made such adventuresome pilgrimages, even on the part of young
girls, plausible . . It was a city of over 500,000, with the ambition,
the daring, the activity of a metropolis of a million. Its streets and
houses were already scattered over an area of seventy-five square
miles. Its population was not so much thriving upon established
commerce as upon the industries which prepared for the arrival of
others . . . .
Carrie also observes big business embodied in the large post-Fire buildings of the city.
It was a characteristic of Chicago then, and one not generally
shared by other cities, that individual firms of any pretension
occupied individual buildings. The presence of ample ground made
this possible. It gave an imposing appearance to most of the
wholesale houses, whose offices were upon the ground floor and
in plain view of the street. The huge plates of window glass, now
so common, were then rapidly coming into use, and gave to the
ground-floor offices a distinguished and prosperous look. The
casual wanderer could see, as he passed, a polished array . . . .
Carrie pays particular attention to the physical and commercial prominence in Chicago of department stores.
At that time the department store was in its earliest form
of successful operation and there were not many. The first three
in the United States, established about 1884, were in Chicago.
Carrie was familiar with the names of several . . . .
The nature of these vast retail combinations, should they
ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter
in the commercial history of our nation . . . They were handsome,
bustling, successful affairs, with a host of clerks and a swarm
of patrons. Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected
by the remarkable display of trinkets, dress goods, shoes,
stationery, jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of
dazzling interest and attraction. She could not help feeling the
claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally . . . all
touched her with individual desire . . . .
Embarked on a new life in Chicago, Carrie hardly knows what she wants, or why. But she feels the city’s business fever whenever she is touched by a “trinket” in a department store. The trinket, like the city, makes her long for something, makes her long for longing. Sensual, aesthetic, commodity seductively infects her with its fever until she too becomes a commodity in Chicago.
As Baum caught sight of a commercial sublime in Chicago, like Carrie he was glimpsing something sensually, aesthetically infectious in commodity, perceived subjectively. Within W. F. Haug’s term “commodity aesthetics” the word aesthetics “designate[s] sensual understanding.” For Haug, sensual understanding is conferred by a wholly subjective perspective. And in his thinking, the subjective perspective is felt as erotic for as long as it is seen as aesthetic.
Haug even conceives of buying and selling as a wooing of eyes by commodity, not only as the eye lusting after the commodity. Thus the commodity dictates aesthetic terms to a consumer while also holding court as a gallivanting swain. When commodities convene en masse, say in a department store window, Haug observes the scene of a courtly orgy. There ogling is the main activity conducted, and so the orgy may not seem to be an orgy. And yet, surely the touch of an eye upon an object precedes and prompts a consummation. So may the flirtation begun by the commodity with the buyer. Reckless respective eyeing by or of the would-be buyer and the to-be-bought will obey a certain decorum, only to surmount that decorum eventually in the all-consuming buying.
Haug writes, “[A] whole range of commodities can be seen casting flirtatious glances at the buyers, in an exact imitation of or even surpassing the buyers’ own glances, which they use in courting their human objects of affection . . . thus, commodities borrow their aesthetic language from human courtship; but then the relationship is reversed and people borrow their aesthetic expression from the world of the commodity.” He concludes of commodity aesthetics, “[P]owerful aesthetic stimulation, exchange-value and libido cling to one another . . . .”
In Haug’s scenario, use-value is simply useless; it can serve no one during the erotic rivalry carried on by commodities redundantly proliferating, tirelessly vying for the fickle consumer. Exchange-value, presiding like a dominatrix over all, ordains that a consumer’s choices will be numerous—or numberless—and any buying will be fraught with antic possibilities, the more antic the better. For if there is too much to choose from, the sale may be delayed indefinitely by the eye’s orgy. If there is too much to choose from, the proprietor and purveyor of commodities would do well to cast his own designing eye upon his wares and try to orchestrate them.
Baum watched others do the orchestrating in Chicago.
But before he began watching all the orchestration of commodity, Baum learned first how to use words to sell commodities to small shopkeepers. He began to indulge in commodity aesthetics as his business.
He had already worked as a small-town Dakota shopkeeper; he had already worked as a regional theater manager; and in Chicago in 1892, Baum went to work as a traveling salesman. He canvassed the Midwestern states for Pitkin and Brooks, a crockery company, trying to persuade provincial store owners, as he once had been, to carry his new company’s wares.
This was not a glamorous profession, especially during hard times like his. Much of Baum’s territory may well have resembled the Kansas of Dorothy, his future heroine: a low, flung realm of farmers and seasonal misfortune. True, Baum did not live there; he only went there from Chicago, where Pitkin and Brooks had its headquarters. But as the city slicker with a bundle to unload on the townies, Baum must have born the brunt of local resentment. They would have had reason to doubt him out there in the hinterland, where many proprietors were only just getting by in the 1890s: for no matter how well a shopkeeper might know his clientele, he could not be certain in advance which staples, gadgets, or gewgaws would justify his investment by ultimately turning him some kind of profit. The job of a traveling salesman was to lure a shopkeeper into risking—and sometimes, into losing—while the salesman skipped town. Hardly a glamorous profession.
Townies would have had reason to doubt Baum in the spirit of Ebenezer Cowley, the owner of Cowley & Sons store in Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Anderson’s fictional portrayal of this small-town Ohio shopkeeper ascribes the “unhappiness” of said “merchant” to
. . . the fact that when a traveling man with wares to be sold
came in at the front door [the shopkeeper] was afraid. Behind the
counter [the shopkeeper] stood shaking his head. He was afraid,
first that he would stubbornly refuse to buy and thus lose the
opportunity to sell again; second that he would not be stubborn
enough and would in a moment of weakness buy what could not
In Anderson’s tale of Ebenezer Cowley, his son Elmer watches with a seething chagrin as a “traveling man” tries to talk Ebenezer into taking on for sale a load of “a small flat metal substitute for collar buttons.” Ebenezer’s evident quandary: buttons might be considered staples, and therefore promising as wares to be featured; but precisely because buttons might be considered staples, why risk replacing them with dubious novelties promised as supposedly surefire substitutes?
As if anticipating the shopkeeper’s skeptical resistance, Anderson’s traveling salesman pleads his case to Ebenezer, while the shopkeeper’s “whole figure express[ed] uncertainty.” The traveling salesman “assumed a flattering wheedling tone,” Anderson writes. “ ‘I tell you what, men have come to the end of all this fooling with collar buttons and you are the man to make money out of the change that is coming,’ ” the salesman urges Ebenezer. “ ‘I am offering you the exclusive agency for this town. Take twenty dozen of these fasteners and I’ll not visit any other store. I’ll leave the field to you.’”
But before the transaction can be consummated, Elmer Cowley, son of Ebenezer, rushes at the salesman with a gun. Elmer has lost patience with out-of-town pro swindlers and their foolish if not fraudulent products.
“ ‘You get out of here!’ he shrieked. ‘We don’t want any collar fasteners here.’ ” End of sales flirtation.
Each time Baum left home and family in Chicago to travel his well-worn salesman’s route, he must have felt a bit spurious to himself, a man of imagination and theatrical flair reduced to hawking china on back roads and unextraordinary main streets. But on his business jaunts, putting up most nights at family-run hotels in anonymous Midwestern burgs, he also began to ply a trade in public as a storyteller. At day’s end before a small audience of townies, he would tell tall tales—and sometimes jot them down on scraps of paper afterward. Making a sale meant bending an ear; bending an ear meant finding a way to amuse or bemuse somebody; fiction and fantasy would amuse and bemuse reliably. In this way, the seller flirted with the buyer, flaunting his wares by writing in the air with his big mouth.
Show windows flaunted something, also; their mouths, if mouths they had, lay open day and night. Since mid-century in Baum’s America, they window had begun to sell the store. And the bigger the store, the bigger the window, and so—potentially—the bigger the sale. After the establishment in Paris of Le Bon Marche by Aristide Boucicaut in 1851, the department store proper was born and soon widely imitated elsewhere.
Emile Zola deliberately chronicled the department store, or magasin de nouveautes, in his 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames, one volume in a series. (A Zola biographer has suggested that the novelist considered “the construction of the great department store a metaphor for the construction of [his own] multivolume saga.”) While taking one hundred pages of preparatory notes for the novel in 1882, Zola explored exhaustively three Paris department stores of his day: Le Place Clichy, Le Louvre, and Le Bon Marche. For a month he interviewed their staffs in detail and visited the stores, back rooms as well as public foyers. Zola’s notes took heed of the color of the bedspreads (blue) of the female employees who boarded at Le Bon Marche; he counted 4300 gas jets lighting the emporium.
Yet his interest came to rest on the spectacle of class and gender struggle set amid huge mercantile profits (the net annual receipts of Le Bon Marche, he calculated, added up to one hundred million francs). He paid close attention when “at the Louvre department store, a salesgirl [is] peremptorily dismissed because a woman client feels ill, accusing her of having eaten garlic sausage. In reality she had eaten bread.” And he studied the jarring discrepancy between the material excess on display and the private penury of the staff.
Above it all in Au Bonheur des Dames towers discreetly the figure of financier Baron Hartmann, chairman of “Credit Immobilier”; his resemblance to George Eugene Haussman, prefect of the Seine under Naopoleon III, seems more than coincidental. Like Haussman, enemy of arcades and architect of Parisian boulevards, supreme self-styled artiste demolisseur, Hartmann enables the demolition of whole neighborhoods to make way for “great thoroughfare[s],” for grand hotels, and for “gigantic shops” such as “Au Bonheur des Dames,” the monolithic department store looming over Zola’s novel of the same name. Hartmann’s fiscal backing ushers in the commercial sublime that crests in the emporium’s massive display windows:
It was a giant fair-ground spread of hawker’s wares, as if the shop
were bursting and throwing its surplus into the street . . . . [T]hey
went . . . past the shop windows, stopping again in front of each
fresh display. First they were attracted by a complicated arrangement:
above, umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to be forming the roof
of some rustic hut; below, suspended from rods and displaying
the rounded outline of calves of the leg, there were silk stockings,
some strewn with bunches of roses, others of every hue—black net,
red with embroidered clocks, flesh-colored ones with a satiny
texture which had the softness of a blonde woman’s skin; lastly,
on the backcloth of the shelves, gloves were symmetrically
distributed, their fingers elongated, their palms tapering like those
of a Byzantine virgin, with the stiff and seemingly adolescent
grace of women’s clothes which have never been worn. But the
last window, above all, held their attention. A display of silks,
satins and velvets was blossoming out there, in a supple and
shimmering range of the most delicate flower tones; at the summit
were the velvets, of deepest black, and as white as curds and whey;
lower down were the satins, pinks and blues with bright folds
gradually fading into infinitely tender pallors; further down still
were the silks, all the colors of the rainbow, pieces of silk rolled up
into shells, folded as if round a drawn-in waist, brought to life
by the knowing hands of the shop-assistants; and, between each
motive, between each colored phrase of the display, there ran
a discreet accompaniment, a delicate gathered strand of
cream-colored foulard . . . .
As the tender pallors and the colored phrases and the satiny softnesses shimmer, so do the words invoking them, in exactly the aesthetic flirtation conceived of by Haug. The gathered strand of the cream-colored foulard invites a sensual fantasy.
The foulard invites a fantasy perhaps especially when the loitering reader doesn’t even own a foulard, perhaps especially when the reader cannot even recall precisely what a foulard looks like or is meant for as a garment. Deprived of all use-value, the word foulard then refines itself visually and sensually as a stroke of light—no less, no more. At the summons of the stroke of light, synaesthesia soon gets the better of us. The more foulards (or their kin) gather in a paragraph or a display window, the more prolonged is the reader’s pause before them, the more complete the shopper’s swoon. Although Marx wrote, “Private property has made us so stupid and inert that an object is ours only when we have it,” when we don’t have it, we can reach for something far better: an imaginary property, displayed in public, to be imagined possessively again (and again) whenever the whim strikes us.
Not having “it,” yet wanting “it,” will build and sustain a city. If “shopping [is] the prerequisite to urbanity,” as John McMorrough has argued, then fantasy may be the prerequisite to shopping: a fantastic wish leads a shopper to a store, and then the store grants the wish or awakens several others like it. The department store, with its many gaping windows and flowing stock, simply offers more of more. “As surplus, or nonessential, the shop exists in a condition beyond need,” McMorrough comments. Beyond need, the department store might give us nearly anything.
In the post-Fire Chicago known to Baum, where the American department store was under conspicuous construction, such boundless power of invention was a commonplace, even a convention. There was strong ground for invention: between 1880 and 1890, the city’s population doubled; downtown real estate values rose from $130,000 per quarter acre to $900,000. Wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, “It became evident that the very tall masonry office building was in its nature economically unfit as ground values steadily rose. Not only did its thick walls entail loss of space and therefore revenue, but its unavoidably small window openings could not furnish the proper and desirable ratio of glass area to rentable floor area.”
With Dankmar Adler, John Wellborn Root, and Daniel Burnham, Sullivan helped to re-envision the city, most spectacularly during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Chicago’s so-called “skyscraper boom.” The fireproof metal frames of the skyscraper supported its floors and walls, rather as old-fashioned masonry once had, and because the metal weighed less than structural masonry, the metal enabled substantial gains in building height. The Home Insurance Building of 1885 was the first skyscraper of the lot, designed by William Le Baron Jenney to reach a height of 180 feet; its innovations included elevators and electric lights, in addition to the metal framing. Daniel Burnham, a primary planner of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (the “Columbian Ecstasy,” Sullivan dubbed it), designed the Rookery building, the Monadnock building, and the Reliance building with his partner John Wellborn Root. Burnham also guided the inception and development of the Chicago Plan, completed in 1909. The Plan, regarded as a more enduring sequel to the vehement fin-de-siecle boosterism of the White City, proposed a Haussmanesque realignment of Chicago’s downtown and the incorporation of significantly more parkland throughout the metropolitan area. Although the Plan as a whole was not realized, it is instructive as Chicago’s wishful fantasy of what the city could be, an oversize album of willfulness. Burnham’s Plan looks poignantly, monumentally Parisian, yet with almost all the history subtracted.
Another fantasy album was founded, edited, and published by L. Frank Baum beginning in 1897, when after five years he quite his salesman job at Pitkin and Brooks at the recommendation of his doctor. The Show Window, a national monthly trade journal for window trimmers, was the first in America to chronicle their newfound business. A year later, Baum established the first trade organization of show-window display designers, the National Association of Window Trimmers; by 1899, membership numbered two hundred. The Show Window displayed Baum’s visual intelligence in every issue, and made his business of commodity aesthetics semi-official.
In the journal Baum anthologized his imagination on a regular basis, not only in reportage, commentary, and advice columns, written largely by the editor, sometimes pseudonymously, but also in photographs of noteworthy show windows. Baum took many of the pictures, selected all the others, and then decided how to arrange them. The editor thus served as a collector and a curator of salvaged beauties, of what-not novelty.
“What is decisive in collecting,” wrote Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, “is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness. What is this ‘completeness’?” Benjamin asked. “It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object’s mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection. And for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes. It is the deepest enchantment of the collector to enclose the particular item within a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone . . . . the collector lives a piece of dream life.”
Supervising his magic circle, Baum dreamed of the page as he gazed at the window. Did he also begin to regard the page as a means of display in its own right, as another window? That might seem inevitable. Until 1902, after all, when Baum sold The Show Window, he was writing fantasy for pleasure while also editing windows for profit. His enterprise of commodity aesthetics would have tended naturally to blend the two.
Peer at the translucent fantasy of a Chicago show window, and glean the inklings of Oz welling up behind its bygone horizon. Jiggle the storehouse of the Emerald City, watch sundry items of fiction bounce and settle, and rearrange those dry goods into a commercial window vista.
The horizons tangle.
The horizons tangle partly because the page and the window are alike in at least one respect: each is crowded with copious and idealized stuff. Each is a playground of perfect plenty.
Warned Joseph Addison in 1712, “Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity.” The scope of the sublime as Addison measured it was such as to overwhelm—but only just. Splendor, natural or artificial, will not tempt enough if the object drifts too far distant from the fingers.
A second common bond of show window and illustrated book page: we can approach each one closely, yet not emigrate. Near and far at once, they exhort our watchfulness with the promise of giving more than we know we can accept.
Consider a Chicago window display of umbrellas, designed by Alfred Tobias for A. M. Rothschild & Co., and included in the August 1899 issue of Baum’s Show Window.
As the photograph from the journal shows incompletely, there cannot be too many umbrellas for Chicago; this particular display depends for its impact on building an illusion of persnickety excess outdoing even thunder’s wildest expectations. Folded and belted, the umbrellas have been organized to form several large “sunburst” wheels centerstage, leaving a firmly radial, axial imprimatur reminiscent of the classic Beaux-Arts style that also dominated the Columbian Exposition’s White City.
However, these “sunburst” wheels, consisting of approximately one hundred umbrellas apiece, may not have been considered enough of a vista. For upright on the plain before the three “sunburst” wheels there dangle still more umbrellas, partly or fully opened (the photo crops them, obstructing our view).
The scene’s insistent symmetry, bordering on umbrella monomania, seems resplendent and eccentric at the same time. For from such humdrum items a designer, Tobias, hoped to wring immaculate plethora, material divinity. Safe from any rainfall, he foresaw a finely foolproof—and yet fictitious—aesthetic defense against climate; in their multitude the umbrellas mimic raindrops, in staunch, waterproof parody.
We can no more absorb the umbrellas than we can the raindrops—there are too many. A literary critic might say that Tobias bolted before the onset of a stormy Naturalism, preferring fantasy.
A distinction of The Land of Umbrellas: no one lives there, except for the umbrellas. And umbrellas are only umbrellas. Indeed, it would be difficult to personify an umbrella, given any desire to do so—the narrow, plummeting shape would shirk a human texture, shrug off our typical protuberances.
Actually, aren’t those umbrellas of Tobias a bit daunting? Massing like an army missing its general? Where is he? The designer fled, leaving no trace, lost behind a curtain.
To enter again Baum’s plenty, eye the grocery display designed by E. Moss for Siegel, Cooper & Co., Chicago, published in the July, 1899 issue of The Show Window in July, 1899.
The imperial outlay of this window suggests symbolically and actually the patrimony of Chicago: tiered provender heaped into sculpted palaces with a god-given harmony, ironically untouchable.
Remember: these constituents are only the heartland’s sundry cans, bottles, and boxes. By inflating their significance and building something even finer with them, Mr. Moss made comestibles paramount. Foodstuffs earned a kingdom.
The largesse of the symmetry on view, and the ceaseless faceting of Moss’s grocery heaven, must have persuaded or at least titillated Baum. Otherwise, why would the picture have been included in his journal?
The grocery horizon was stocked to the rafters by Mr. Moss. Visually, so was Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. For while collaborating with the Chicago artist and illustrator W. W. Denslow on that novel, Baum co-engineered page after page of ornately cantilevered collages, in which text and art unconventionally intermingled.
As the corn grows on page 47 of Oz, so does the story; neither one assumes priority in Baum’s idyll. In order to see through the page’s dense visual embroidery, we have to perch on the page for a while and indulge in reverie. We are like the Scarecrow, taken up short, unsure at first of what to do with the details of an enfolded vista. But we’re also like the crow, pausing only briefly before grabbing a seemly kernel.
Overstocked, Baum’s page offered an unfamiliar new abundance to the spectator, rather like the groceries mounted ceremonially in Moss’s store window: each landscape unveiled known ingredients arranged with a sleight of hand, tempting a harvest.
Look again at the window of Baum’s cornfield. While telling his life story to Dorothy, the Scarecrow by and by recalls to her his onetime imprisonment in that field, where the crows who should have feared and fled him instead enjoyed their fill of corn and meanwhile perched brazenly on Scarecrow’s shoulder, insulting him. “ ‘Any crow of sense can see that you are only stuffed with straw,’ ” one crow proclaimed. In Baum’s kingdom, the corn-strewn page is stuffed similarly. Words, stalks, birds, weeds, boots, and other stray ingredients gather there in perfect plenty.
Throughout Oz, the editorial duet of Baum and Denslow conspired to stage the page as if to announce and urge the act of looking. Forty pages further on in the novel, the quintet of adventurers decides to attempt a river crossing. They hope to escape the Kalidahs, a tiger-like type of troublemaker. On page 82, Baum and Denslow give us a sight of seeing: safely astride the Lion sidesaddle, Dorothy smilingly peers across a watery domain whose ripples, bullrushes, and lilies becalm the text, ushering slight eddies into the ponds of paragraphs, where we look and fish for an opening.
Any other author of Baum’s era would have cordoned off carefully such mingled visual and verbal vignettes. Yet as an overseer of storefront extravaganzas and retail signage, Baum saw no reason to deny the eye a large-scale floating revel between book covers. If the sophisticated balancing act of plenty in a shop window would go far to wow the onlooker, then so could the stockpiling storyteller, with the help of Denslow.
In a tug of war for the reader’s attention, surely sometimes Denslow won—and Baum did not. To merge text and illustrations in a poster-like collage upon a book-size double-spread will sometimes demand that a reader (child or adult) give up the primacy of words in order to visit the rising charms of a shadow landcape.
In one scene, pictured on pages 110 to 111, the travelers have emerged from a hazardous forest and a narcotic poppy field to enter the Land of Oz. Now hungry, they approach a small farmhouse, seeking sustenance. Finally free of “gloomy shades,” they again discover eyesight. While Baum and Denslow supply us with a fruitful pastoral, they also give us five pairs of goggle-eyes to ogle.
The gaping stares of the Lion, the Tin Man, Toto, and the Scarecrow launch from the farmhouse fence to study the mysterious life inside the farm from a distance, while the farmwife, sought by Dorothy, returns their bemused and wary gazes with her own. The view of all those eyes opens ours less on them than on the involutions of the wavering backdrop inserted into Baum’s monochromatic sentences.
In the book, the backdrop and every detail of the setting are rendered in green, while the outlines of the human and animal figures are black. Green further lures the eye into the nooks and crannies of the underlying landscape: hollyhock petals may abduct a reader’s attention, so may the vaguely wandering clouds, and so may the plump rooftop thatch—even a mundane dooryard hinge or two. Why not let the eye abandon the textual foreground of the story and subside into the lustrous idleness of a dream depicted?
Before and after reading or rereading Oz, the eye might prefer to descend into Denslow’s absorbing mirage. The abstract power of the total picture outweighs the miscellaneous narrative details, as the sculpted palaces outweigh the groceries of Mr. Moss.
The fantasy forgives the reader.
The fantasy forgives the reader, whose gaze is rewarded.
On page one, volume one, number one of The Show Window: A Journal for the Merchant, editor L. Frank Baum published an article about gazing.
He commissioned one Mark Graham to take stock of a novel occupation: that of window gazer.
Pseudonymous or not, the writer Graham wrote: “I noticed the other day an advertisement in a daily paper that read: ‘WANTED, at once, an experienced window gazer. Steady employment to the right person. Apply to D. W. Blank & Co.’
“I knew Mr. Blank slightly, and, impelled by curiosity, went to see him.
“ ‘Do you usually employ window gazers?’ ” asked Graham of Blank.
“ ‘No,’ ” Blank replied, “ ‘this is our first experience. One of our competitors has employed such people for several weeks, and by investigation I find the scheme is making him money. Therefore we have decided to try it ourselves.’ ”
Money could be earned by a wandering eye.
Profit was expected of the visionary.
Rambling on in his mercantile Socratic dialogue, Graham inquired of Blank:
“ ‘What are the requirements of a successful window gazer?’ ”
Responded Blank, “ ‘He must be well dressed and of respectable appearance. The business requires considerable tact and discrimination, as you may guess.’ ”
And Blank gave more advice. “ ‘Here, where the walk is constantly crowded with pedestrians, the window gazer must be a good actor. He comes down the street at a swinging pace, glances casually at the window, and then abruptly stops to gaze eagerly at the goods displayed. Usually a number of people stumble over him at first, but some are sure to pause and see what he is looking at, and soon a crowd accumulates.
“ ‘So long as the crowd remains,’ ” cautioned Blank, “ ‘the window gazer is at leisure; when it disperses, he goes back to the corner, and repeats his former feat, but with necessary variations, to prevent suspicion.’ ”
Demanded Graham, garish innocent: “ ‘And do you think this method of advertising pays?’ ”
The reply is brief and heartfelt.
“ ‘Well, yes; I believe it does . . . .’ ”
Graham followed up: “ ‘Do you consider this method of attracting customers legitimate?’ ”
“ ‘Why not? Is it any more deceptive than the general run of adverti-
And so the gazer will mislead, or he may lead. After all.
The gazer, moreover, will advertise more than the umbrella, the spool of thread, the hatpin, or the sponge on display in the store window can. He will also advertise the eye. He sells the gaze as a tool to refine in daily trade.
Unlike the flaneur, who stalks to privatize, the gazer provokes a public to open its eyes. (Then buy.)
To start a social quiver was another part of the window gazer’s goal.
Only consider how Graham extols with a mild thrill the blinking female corps.
“I know two ladies,” Graham confides, “who are expert window gazers, and are employed by a large millinery house. They are pretty and always well dressed, and they ‘hunt in pairs,’ so to speak.
“They stop before the window, and one exclaims, ‘Oh, there is that lovely shade of ribbon I have hunted for so long! I must go in and buy some, for it’s the very latest style.’ ‘These people always have the newest things in millinery,’ remarks her companion, in a tone loud enough to be overheard by the crowd of femininity, and when they rush into the establishment to make their mythical purchases, some are always sure to follow them.’ ”
Does Graham quiver now?
To be seen by the man with the pen who believes himself to be unseen by them may give the women of this myth a libidinous precocity as the “crowd” of them prowls.
Gravely boyish, Graham refrains from describing in full the feminine fray. But his glance captures the crowd who covets in public.
Since he refrains, Graham may seem to beckon another ogler to join him, so that together they may finish what he has begun: to gaze upon the women who have been gazing away from him.
As Baum acknowledged in the introduction to his book, The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors (1900), published in the same year as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, “Careful research fails to determine where a show window was first utilized as an adjunct to merchandising.” An adjunct it remained for a while, except to Baum and his fellow-fantasists. He tried at every turn to boost the trade, but wanly conceded, “It [window trimming] is probably a gradual development from the small, many-paned front window of the merchant shop, following the natural transformation of shops into stores and of crude green-glass panes into clear plate-glass fronts.”
Baum added, “I think it will pay any ambitious young man to learn to trim windows and to decorate store interiors. His art will be in demand some day—and that day is not far distant, either.” Window trimming and window gazing were not simply milarkey and malingering.
Indeed, by the time volumes four and five of The Show Window rolled into print, help wanted ads began to confirm Baum’s confidence.
Advertisements under this heading will be inserted at a
To Baum the entrepreneur, of course, window trimming made good pragmatic sense. As he understood it, “These are the three grades—the three developments in advertising. The street crier, the newspapers, the show window. The last mode of inducing trade is the modern one, and therefore the best. More goods are sold through window display than through advertising. It is more direct. The newspaper advertisement says: ‘We have goods to sell.’ The show window says: ‘Here they are!’ ”
Yet he also felt the pressure of business falling heavily sometimes on trimming as a would-be art. Now and then in his magazine, Baum brays in defense of the art.
As he argued, “Some of the magazines and the daily press, in mentioning The Show Window, have called it ‘a trade magazine.’ While fully appreciating the implied compliment,” huffed the editor, “The Show Window disclaims any connection with that branch of journalism. Our magazine is devoted entirely to the art of window trimming, an art as distinct and well defined as painting, music or sculpture. Therefore, The Show Window is an art magazine,” he claimed.
As trimming gradually persuaded retailers that it was worth the investment of time, staff, and money, display as an art may have lost footing, hitched more tightly than before to commerce. Baum’s wistful tendency to impute art to a growing business may have met with consequent obstacles and frustrations. When window trimming ceased to be a plaything of his imagination, did he begin turning his mind more often to Oz?
If he swerved from show windows to book pages in search of aesthetic beauty, Baum probably carried colors with him. The magazine could not present or preserve them, yet their absence from the black-and-white contents does nothing to disprove their life in his mind at the time.
Did the exclusion of color from The Show Window further goad Baum’s eye, with its artistic ambitions, and lead him headlong into the brimming hues of color-coded Oz and its environs? In collaboration with illustrator Denslow, Baum contrived to use an extraordinary amount of color throughout the pages of the book—so lavish, in fact, that the original publisher, George M. Hill Co., quite unusually asked the author and the illustrator to bear the book’s production costs. Baum kept his eye fixed not only on the words of his tale but also on the volume’s unfolding visual panorama.
Regardless, the recurrent pontificating upon color in numbers of The Show Window makes quite clear in its own right Baum’s puckishly changeable loyalty to color and its all-too-conventional regimentation.
“The first thing that one must think of in dressing a window is the proper harmonizing of hues,” declared an unsigned article in volume one, number one. “Color appeals to the eye at once, whether the hue be attractive or not. If the color which catches the eye is agreeable, the eye is held and its owner begins to look beyond the mere hue to see what the article is that owns the color. If that pleases likewise, a purchaser is secured.”
To secure a purchaser, the shopkeeper’s gimlet eye might narrow color’s uses to but a few. However, the editor elsewhere noted: “Indeed, this may, with reason, be called the age of the zenith of artistic advertising . . . . if we are not under a misapprehension, Sir John Millais, late president of the Royal Academy, did not consider it beneath his dignity to design a very beautiful picture for the proprietor of a well known soap.” Baum cheered on quasi-artistry in the face of colorless mammon. He sought to bridge beauty and profit.
Presumably Baum agreed with his Show Window correspondent Forrest Crissey when Crissey wrote of the dry goods window trimmer, “His eye for harmonious color combinations must be as true as that of a mural decorator.” To Crissey, comparing European and American show windows in the December 1897 issue, the typical American display window seemed both less inhibited and more artful with respect to color. He breathlessly asserted:
To place in a single window forty-two shades and maintain
peace between them so perfect as to please the most sensitive eye is
a feat which has been accomplished by a Chicago window artist
whose work is of the most dignified character, and has attracted the
attention of visitors from every portion of the continent.
The sound of humbug rumbles from that comment. And yet, does artful humbug sometimes well serve beloved wizards?
Baum’s occasionally ironic view of the retail rainbow may have been refined further than even he anticipated by the mincing prescriptions and the wooden prohibitions of an anonymous color critic in 1897 who flatly advised in The Show Window:
“Keep blue and violet apart.”
“Don’t let orange and red stand close together.”
“Yellow and green are all right. Look at an orange tree in fruit and leaf for an example.”
“Anything bright goes well with black.”
“Don’t try to use too many colors at once.”
Unlike this masked pedant, Baum insinuated himself into the color argument with a storyteller’s grin and snicker. In volume three, number four, he reminisces:
A sense of [color] harmony, I believe, is born in one rather than
acquired, and what might be harmonious to me and many others
would perhaps give you a shock.
When I owned a store of my own [in Aberdeen, Dakota] I once
delegated the task of trimming a window to a clerk, a young
Irishman, just as I was leaving town. I told him to put in some goods
which were delicate tints of heliotrope and ecru, “and,” said I,
“take care that your background harmonizes.” He sent me a local
paper, while I was away, in which mention was made of a very
beautiful window in my establishment, and when I returned I
expected to see something startling. I did. My heliotrope and ecru
tints were backed by emerald green and bright red!
“Do you call that background harmonious?” I asked,
“Them, sor,” he replied, solemnly, “is the foinest colors in
And then I remembered he was Irish. And the man who wrote
the newspaper notice was Irish also. To them it was a beautiful
Baum adored supposedly world-saving mechanical contrivances, real or faux, for their own sake. Like the color green, these gimcracks voyage from his periodical to his novel, and sometimes back again.
For example, the March 1898 issue of The Show Window includes a straight-faced article by G. D. Rice telling trimmers how to install a helium-filled balloon as a focal component of their windows. Baum’s Wizard famously tried and failed to float from Oz to Kansas via balloon travel.
And in Baum’s September 1898 issue, an article touts a “trick” display window, dependent on the manipulation of mirrors, that exhibits a marvelous man with a spectacularly long neck.
This novelty of neck is weird yet harmless, unlike his apparent cousins in Oz, the Hammer-Heads, who are armless.
While journeying to the country of the Quadlings, Dorothy and her cronies meet up with the Hammer-Heads, a class of rogue whose heads pound the unwary like abruptly fired ballistic weapons. When provoked, a Hammer-Head commands the ability to thrust its head far from its body, thanks to a hyper-extended and muscular neck: “As quick as lightning the man’s head shot forward and his neck stretched out until the top of the head, where it was flat, struck the Scarecrow in the middle and sent him tumbling, over and over, down the hill. Almost as quickly as it came the head went back to the body . . . .”
Similarly, the Tin Man may have sprung from the Tin Horse that posed in a show window designed by Kanters Bros. of Holland, Michigan. The photograph of this window, with its “hardware display” theme, appears in the November 1898 issue of Baum’s magazine. Mythic and armorial, the Tin Horse looms over center stage, surrounded by ordinary hay bales, barrels, paint cans, and all the rest. But the sundries are incidental, overshadowed by an equine creature who carries the display on his fabulous shoulders.
And the Scarecrow could have crept from the dry heap of Manila Man, who shows up in Baum’s October 1898 issue in a black-and-white artist’s rendering, unsigned. Constructed entirely of “Manila” twine that has been bundled and bound to shape limbs, head, and thorax, Manila Man reposes and patiently holds a plunger. He is meant to attract all eyes to a show window. Like the Scarecrow, Mr. Manila’s stance seems lax, yet eager. Without much ego, he’s a flopsy, likable fellow.
“It has become the fashion,” observes an unsigned article accompanying the Manila Man illustration, “to make forms of different classes of goods, and the hardware dealer will find the Manila Man easily made and a great attraction.”
Manila Man, like the Scarecrow, manages to surprise the eye and focus attention anew on a material previously taken for granted. He transforms twine into a potential character to imply a possible story.
Japanese mice, also advertised as a window showpiece in the magazine, may have suggested to Baum their uses as fictional characters in Oz. The mice who rescue the dozing Lion from the poppy field by hauling him out in a wagon until the “poisonous scent of the flowers” can no longer intoxicate him may have hopped straight into the novel from the magazine.
Volumes four and five of The Show Window include demure display advertisements for “Japanese Waltzing Mice” as a proposed window attraction. One ad includes an illustration of the mice entwined by their tales that is reminiscent of the Denslow “rescue” illustration. And an unsigned report in volume five, number two of The Show Window, almost certainly written by Baum, recommends to window display artists everywhere “a cage of waltzing mice”:
JAPANESE WALTZING MICE
One of the most amusing novelties for window display is a cage
of waltzing mice.
One pair of these mice are claimed to be equal to $300 in adver-
tising to any merchant. They are easily kept, no trouble, the cost of
food is almost nothing; they are not like our common mice, wild, but
are tame and can be handled by a child, and if taken out of the cage
and placed on the floor will not run away; they will spin in your
hand or any place you put them. Their movements are rapid, and often
people will wager that four or five mice are contained in the cage
where there are really only two, and from all appearances they
travel the space of 100 miles a day. They seem to be naturally
adapted for window attractions, as they commence their funny
pranks the latter part of the afternoon and keep it up until late
at night, and are in full operation when most people are out on the
The price is so reasonable that any merchant can afford a pair
of these mice. They are imported by J. A. Kleppisch, of Burlington,
Did Baum invent this notion, or were the waltzing mice in fact available in Iowa? Impossible to say, for no photo is provided.
In Oz the tattered ploys of the Wizard prove that his power is real, although his magic is sham. Likewise, The Show Window at times venerates shameless shtick and remarkable fraud.
Why marvel at a naked gimmick? Why claim that chicanery deserves some credit? Perhaps because a rube, when duped, is prone at least to wonder. For Baum, wonder would redeem the blockhead.
The show window was a home to wonders. In an article of May 1898 recommending the use of live humans as selling tools in display windows, Baum commented: “Perhaps the first instance where human forms were displayed in show windows was when the ‘Seven Sutherland Sisters’ showed their long hair to the admiring gaze of New Yorkers and sold thereby thousands of their hair tonic.”
As Baum wryly noted, “. . . milliners and cloak makers hire beautiful creatures to sit in their windows and try on a succession of hats or capes . . . Prettier girls with prettier hats may pass you in the streets every moment without notice, but when a girl is placed behind the window pane she at once becomes a center of attraction.”
The more abject the ninny, the more wondrous the achievement of the showman. As Baum recalled in the same article:
One of the most curious examples of human window displays
was shown in Pixley & Co.’s store at Terre Haute, Ind., recently.
“Prof.” Harry Mack, a young hypnotist, hypnotized his wife, a
very attractive lady, at 2 p.m., before throngs of people, and left
the lady sleeping in the window until 8 o’clock, when he awakened
her. No one passed near, in the interim, who did not pause to
examine the sleeping beauty—even men did not disdain to gaze
curiously upon the hypnotized form. The crowds of people completely
blocked the streets during the display, and Pixley & Co. were the
talk of the town.
Concluded Baum, “Just why people will join a crush to see a lady lying asleep is one of the curious problems in human nature.”
Forging ahead further into glassy-eyed human gullibility, an unsigned article in the November 1898 issue reported:
A firm in Marquette, Mich., put a miniature full-rigged schooner
in their window, bearing the sign: “Made by an armless man.” Crowds
of people bothered their heads to figure out how a man could make
it with his toes, never stopping to reflect that evidently the sign
The power of fiction held Baum’s eye most surely when it was most improbable.
Baum the whimsical visionary was a cheerful amateur. So was Baum the photographer of show windows—he was a cheerful amateur in almost everything he did. His goal wasn’t specialty; it was enterprise.
He took photos; he edited photos; he collected them. “To collect photos,” wrote Susan Sontag, “is the collect the world . . . The image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store.” And yet, “What the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do—speak,” Sontag has complained. “The caption is the missing voice, and it is expected to speak the truth.”
I have chosen, in effect, to write a few captions here for Baum, a watcher who looked into the windows of Chicago and wrote about what he saw.
In Chicago, and thanks to Chicago, Baum began to build—and he built fantasy. Chicago was the window into which he gazed when he composed the Land of Oz, The Show Window, and the Emerald City.
Approach Chicago now from the south at night and the city seems to tip a lit bravado into the Lake. Or come from the east offshore on a cloudy afternoon and ponder the vertical skyline as a severe sculpture, a gray waving motion. Peered at from north of the city limits, the veering excelsior drift of downtown is likely to be softened by mist, as if arranged by an anxious stage manager: not Oz, and not heaven, but strangely lyrical for an ordinary working town.
Chicago, however, is best met diagonally, from the southwest. You feel it rise, notice danger in the lift, and twist your neck in sympathy, trying to catch a view of nerves exposed in rare cross-section, the profile of a greedy urban idealism. (Always wanting more—isn’t that the reason why a city succeeds, or fails?) Details waylay the eye—the origin, for example, of the first sparks in 1871 of the Chicago Fire, just across the river today from Marina City’s spiral maze of condominiums. The spot, an industrial oasis, awaits residential high-rise redevelopment. No more Irish wood-frame tinderboxes.
Urban bounty thickens. The swooping Sears Tower may not appeal; the building stakes out arrogance as a dusky capital good. Less insistently, the Deco figure of goddess Ceres balances atop the Chicago Board of Trade building, her face a sleek, vacant mask without eyes or lips. Her limbs are long, like a swimmer’s. The architect presumed that no one would gaze on Ceres with intimacy, since no tower could “ever” match the height of his, not even in posterity. Thus he breezily made his omissions.
As you plod from the southwest, imagining the elevator shafts welling; as you covet masonry ornaments carved into the bulging stone exterior muscles—even as you try to hoard a dream of city, you must try to sense the open movement of the whole.
Closer now, you see that Chicago is only pausing on land. In a surge of effort, the city musters itself in the mulled decision to fly.
Crouch, spring, escape—it won’t matter. Neither does the flight of Chicago, merely foreseeable. Instead observe the perfect image of rising strain in profile, a city’s pure, willed potential. Flight has been postponed. The act is still to come.