Did L. Frank Baum’s 1880s “Castorine” company inspire the Tin Man?
The oil can of the Tin Man in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz perhaps can trace its roots to America’s earliest oilfields, where L. Frank Baum founded a petroleum lubricant business before becoming the famous children’s book author.
“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” explained Evan Schwartz in his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.
Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led him to finding that in the 1880s L. Frank Baum and his brother started an oil products business in Syracuse, New York. The business continues to this day.
The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel and axle oil for a living. In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their small business offering lubricants, oils, greases — and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”
Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”
Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with L. Frank Baum serving as superintendent and chief salesman for the next four years.
“He was a traveling salesman for the company,” noted a 2011 exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”
The Kalamazoo exhibit’s text also explained that although the petroleum lubricating company enjoyed some success, the business “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”
Baum wrote of his Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.” The frustrated businessman sold the oil venture. In May 1900 he published the first of his children’s classics.
Son of a Successful Oilman
L. (Lyman) Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum — one of only five of the children to survive into adulthood.
Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.
In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. “Frankie” was then only four and a half years old. Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run would bring his enterprising father great wealth.
“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” wrote Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.
“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers reported. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”
As U.S. consumer demand for kerosene lamps skyrocketed, Pennsylvania’s oil region produced the new industry’s earliest tycoons, long before Standard Oil Company (also see the cautionary tale of the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny”).
By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company and was a well-established independent oil producer. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses. Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man.
When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.
“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” according to historian Ronald G. Taylor.
“The plant, owned by B.W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships,” Taylor explained.
Although there were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil regions, there no longer was unlimited free enterprise in oilfields.
“John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution,” added Rogers in her book. “In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the planned pipeline. Despite the setback, Baum continued to find success with prolific oil wells in New York.
After almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum (1821-1887) died in Syracuse, New York. His petroleum wealth had helped him acquire small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania and permitted his son to pursue writing, publishing journals, and writing for the stage — perhaps setting the stage for Frank’s future fame.
Finding the Tin Man’s Oil Can
When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, he was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life — and that the Tin Man’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.
“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explained, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888. Schwartz also discovered the company still manufactured industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company.
“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz wrote.
“The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms,” he noted. “What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”
Learn about the historic Allegheny petroleum industry by visiting the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.
Recommended Reading: L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography (2002); Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story (2009); Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State (1949). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil in the Land of Oz.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/l-frank-baum-castorine-oil. Last Updated: June 30, 2022. Original Published Date: June 1, 2005.