Did you know that our sister brand–Smithsonian National Mall Tours–offers a guided walking tour of the National Museum of American History? The tour, Myths and Misconceptions, takes you on a journey from some of the museum’s iconic exhibits and artifacts through some of the lesser known gems. The tour’s narrative, created with experts from the Smithsonian Institution and delivered by your own personal guide, will lead you on a walk through American history unlike any other. We’re Off to See the Slippers, the Wonderful Slippers from Oz is the first in a series of blog posts written by one of the creators of the Myths and Misconceptions tour, Jen Shafer, that will explore some of our favorite parts of the tour!
Ever wonder what it would be like to be transported to a brightly colored fantastical world filled with singing creatures and a city made out of emeralds? While travel-by-tornado might not be ideal, millions of people have joined Dorothy Gale in her adventure through Oz since the 1939 release of the film The Wizard of Oz. Deemed “culturally significant” and the most viewed motion picture on television syndication by the Library of Congress, fans of all ages have flocked to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to see the film’s most iconic object: the Ruby Slippers.
Based after the 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, Dorothy’s magical slippers were originally silver. In good ol’ metaphorical fashion, there is a popular belief that the silver slippers actually symbolize the Populist Party’s desire to develop a bimetallic standard of both gold and silver in place of the gold standard (the yellow brick road) during the Gilded Age. Although Baum never confirmed his intention of making the novel a political allegory, high school teacher Henry Littlefield’s interpretation of the American fairytale, published in the American Quarterly in 1964, seems too good not to be true. However, to take advantage of the Technicolor film and to better stand out against the brilliant yellow-brick road, the slippers were changed to the famous ruby red.
Designed by MGM’s chief costume designer Gilbert Adrian, several pairs of slippers were made for the film, though the exact number is unknown. The Smithsonian’s well-worn slippers are not actually covered in rubies, but they do have roughly 2,400 sequins and are believed to be Judy Garland’s primary pair for dance sequences. With their enormous popularity today, it’s hard to believe that for about 30 years, they were sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
In 1970, MGM Studios was clearing out its backlot property in Culver City and costume worker Kent Warner was told to destroy all but one pair of ruby slippers to put up for auction. Warner did choose a pair for sale, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity before him, and he stuffed the remaining slippers in a bag for himself. He would eventually end up selling his stolen pairs, one of which would help pay his medical bills after being diagnosed with AIDs in 1981.
MGM sold their pair for $15,000 to an anonymous buyer, who then donated them to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979. Since then, millions of people around the world have been able to see these remarkable shoes, which have become a hallmark of American popular culture and a reminder of the film’s message; that with the love and help of our family and friends, we already have everything that we need.
For almost 80 years, The Wizard of Oz has withstood time, but that hasn’t been the case with the ruby slippers. Although there’s no place like home, the ruby slippers will only be on display until Sunday, April 23rd before being removed for preservation and research for a significant period of time.
To catch a glimpse of these amazing slippers before they’re gone, and to learn more about the film and other objects that have defined American culture, check out our “Myths and Misconceptions” Walking Tour in the National Museum of American History (every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM.) To make a reservation, click here.
By Jen Shafer