Denslow, W(illiam) W(allace) 1856-1915

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DENSLOW, W(illiam) W(allace) 1856-1915

PERSONAL: Born May 5, 1856, in Philadelphia, PA; died from pneumonia, March 29, 1915; son of William (a botanist) and Jane Eva Denslow; married Annie McCartney, 1882 (divorced); married Anne Waters Holden, 1896 (divorced 1903); married Frances Golsen Doolittle, 1903 (divorced c. 1909). Education: Attended Cooper Union Institute, 1870-71, and National Academy of Design, 1872-73.

CAREER: Illustrator, cartoonist, poet, re-teller of children's stories, playwright, and designer of posters, costumes, and scenery. Rand, McNally & Co., designer, 1896-98; Roycrofters, East Aurora, NY, designer, 1898; Niagara Lithograph Company, 1909; Rosenbaum Studios, 1913.


Denslow's Picture Books for Children: Humpty Dumpty, Little Red Riding-Hood, Three Bears, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Old Mother Hubbard, House That Jack Built, One Ring Circus, Zoo, Five Little Pigs, Tom Thumb, ABC Book, and Jack and the Bean-Stalk, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1903, republished in two volumes as Denslow's Humpty Dumpty and Other Stories and Denslow's One Ring Circus and Other Stories, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1903.

Denslow's New Series of Picture Books: Scarecrow and the Tin-Man, Simple Simon, Animal Fair, Barn-Yard Circus, Mother Goose ABC Book, and Three Little Kittens, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1904, republished in one volume as Denslow's Scarecrow and the Tin-Man and Other Stories, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1904.

(With Paul West) The Pearl and the Pumpkin, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1904.

(With Dudley A. Bragdon) Billy Bounce, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1906.

When I Grow Up, Century (New York, NY), 1909.


I. H. M'Cauley, Historical Sketch of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, D. F. Pursel (Chambersburg, PA), 1878.

John F. Cowan, A New Invasion of the South, Board of Officers, Seventy-first Infantry (New York, NY), 1881.

J. P. Johnston, Twenty Years of Husling, Hallet (Chicago, IL), 1888.

P. T. Barnum, Dollars and Sense; or, How to Get On, People's Publishing (Chicago, IL), 1890.

Opie Read, A Tennessee Judge, Laird & Lee (Chicago, IL), 1893.

Le Roy Armstrong, Byrd Flam in Town, Bearhope (Chicago, IL), 1894.

Opie Read, An Arkansas Planter, Rand, McNally (Chicago, Il), 1896.

Will Phillip Hooper, An Untold Tale, Home (New York, NY), 1897.

Charles Warren Stoddard, A Cruise under the Crescent, Rand, McNally (Chicago, IL), 1898.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ye Ancient Mariner, Roycrofters (East Aurora, NY), 1899.

Edward Fitzgerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Roycrofters (East Aurora, NY), 1899.

Frank L. Baum, Father Goose: His Book, G. M. Hill (Chicago, IL), 1899.

Frank L. Baum, The Songs of Father Goose, G. M. Hill (Chicago, IL), 1900.

Frank L. Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, G. M. Hill (Chicago, IL), 1900.

Frank L. Baum, Dot and Tot of Merryland, G. M. Hill (Chicago, IL), 1900.

Denslow's Mother Goose, McClure, Phillips (New York, NY), 1901.

Clement C. Moore, Denslow's Night before Christmas, G. W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1902.

Richard Webb, Me and Lawson, G.W. Dillingham (New York, NY), 1905.

Isabel M. Johnston, The Jeweled Toad, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1907.

Also contributor of illustrations to periodicals, including Hearth and Home, St. Nicholas, American Agriculturalist, Theatre, Californian Illustrated Magazine, Philistine, Bill Poster, Fra, and John Martin's Book.

SIDELIGHTS: Best known as the illustrator of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, W. W. Denslow was scarcely recognized for his achievements until the late twentieth century. Denslow, nicknamed "Hippocampus Den" because of his sketch of a seahorse along side his signature "Den" that accompanied most of his work, struggled with alcoholism, financial difficulties, and failed marriages. He was especially praised for his clever and often cynical designs, his striking, multicolored posters, his ability to target his illustrations by audience, and for amending popular children's verse to avoid what he considered unnecessary violence and questionable content.

Denslow began his formal training in design and illustration at age fourteen, attending the Cooper Union Institute and the National Academy of Design, both in New York City. He began selling some of his work at about age twenty, and lived an independent, often bohemian existence, traveling around the country to sell his craft. Denslow is quoted as saying in Douglas Greene and Michael P. Hearn's W. W. Denslow in 1894: "I float, as it were, with the steam, enjoying life as I float. I do have a good time and no mistake, besides that I work very hard, being at it night and day. . . . Of course, I should like to do something better, but a big salary and solid comfort make one hesitate to lean to something else."

"Color, fun and action," according to J. M. Bowles in Brush and Pencil, were Denslow's buzzwords, particularly when color became more readily available at the turn of the twentieth century. He worked for newspapers and periodicals, and his work was noted for its "clean, sharp lines." Even so, he yearned for an opportunity to design books. Denslow designed theatrical costumes and posters in Chicago, earning international acclaim. After living in Denver and San Francisco, Denslow returned to New York and secured a job with Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft studio. Hubbard, a writer and editor, is noted for launching the handicraft movement in America, and Denslow was paid fifty dollars per week to design Roycroft advertising and literature. Denslow was socially active wherever he lived and in 1986 met L. Frank Baum, who at the time barely made a living selling crockery and needed a creative outlet. They began talking about publishing a children's book and collaborated on Father Goose, His Book.

A year later, they published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which soon became an American icon and children's literary breakthrough. Prosperity and critical acclaim greeted the book. Douglas G. Greene wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The final product integrated text and illustration as no earlier American children's book had done. Denslow's more than one hundred illustrations often cut into the words, and sometimes they were even printed over the type. The full-color plates seem flooded with light, and the entire effect is garish and otherworldly—a perfect fairy-tale world." Michael Patrick Hearn, in American Artist, hailed its technical virtues, explaining that "not only [was it] one of the earliest extensive uses of color in an American children's book, but [it was also] Denslow's first assignment in full color." According to Greene and Hearn, "An Illinois paper noted that Baum possessed a 'quaint philosophy that fits like a glove to the skilled hand of Denslow. These two artists work together with marvelous felicity and the productions of their meditations are destined to have a permanent place in the child's literature of the world.'"

They only collaborated on one more book, Dot and Tot of Merryland, considered Denslow's most purely decorative creation. Some people attribute the bitter separation of the men to Denslow's greed, especially when financial disputes arose after The Wonderful World of Oz was transformed into "an immensely popular musical extravaganza." The men disagreed over who owned production rights, Baum later saying: "Denslow was allowed to copyright his pictures conjointly with my claim to authorship . . . and, having learned my lesson from my unfortunate experiences with Denslow, I will never permit another artist to have an interest in the drawings he makes of my described characters, if I can help it."

Denslow then claimed the right to illustrate, rewrite and thus reinterpret some of the most long-standing children's works of the time. The first two he titled Denslow's Mother Goose and Denslow's Night before Christmas. Never had an artist or writer put his or her name in front of these children's classics. Although this could have damaged his reputation, his changes were perceived as justified. Denslow took issue with many children's works featuring violence, blatant insinuations of abuse and immoral behavior. For example, whereas the original "Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe" beat her children soundly before putting them to bed, Denslow had her kiss them instead. In Little Red Riding Hood, the previously vicious Big Bad Wolf became domesticated, and Grandma lived to see another day. Greene and Hearne quoted Denslow: "I don't always adhere to the text of the familiar nursery rhymes. I believe in pure fun for the children, and I believe it can be given them without any incidental gruesomeness. In my Mother Goose I did not hesitate to change the text where the change would give a gentler and clearer tone to the verse. The comic element isn't lost in this way. . . . So when I illustrate and edit childhood classics I don't hesitate to expurgate. I'd rather please the kids than any other audience in the world."

Still, Denslow took his work very seriously. He studied animals and human figures extensively. He became proficient in anatomical design and function, and paid special attention to human and animal faces. Denslow also scrutinized details of the appearance in individual figures, and their arrangement in books and other publications. He supervised the layout and production of his work. In creating the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman in The Wonderful World of Oz, Denslow told an interviewer, as quoted by Greene and Hearn: "I made twenty-five sketches of those two monkeys before I was satisfied with them. You may well believe that there was a great deal of evolution before I got that golf ball in the Scarecrow's ear or the funnel on the Tim Man's head. I experimented and tried all sorts of straw waist-coats and sheet-iron cravats before I was satisfied."

Denslow never reclaimed his early success. His career went mostly downhill after 1905, and he resumed heavy drinking. Denslow, however, did enjoy sporadic prosperity, purchasing an entire island in the Bahamas, which he jokingly referred to as his "sovereign kingdom." The renowned Mark Twain, receiving a copy of Father Goose from Denslow's second wife, recognized the start of a new era in children's literature. According to Greene and Hearn, Twain said he would "usurp ambassadorial powers [to thank Baum and Denslow] in the name of the child world for making it. . . . Father Goose has a double chance to succeed: parents will buy him ostensibly for the nursery so that they may privately smuggle him out and enjoy him themselves."



Bader, Barbara, American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1976, pp. 2-12.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 188: American Book and Magazine Illustrators, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Greene, Douglas G., and Michael Patrick Hearn, W. W. Denslow, Clarke Historical Library (Mount Pleasant, MI), 1976.

Greene, David L., and Dick Martin, The Oz Scrapbook, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.

Meyer, Fred M., The Best of the Baum Bugle, International Wizard of Oz Club, 1975.


American Artist, May, 1973, Michael Patrick Hearn, "W. W. Denslow: The Forgotten Illustrator," pp. 40-45, 71-73.

Brush and Pencil, September, 1903, J. M. Bowles, "Children's Books for Children," pp. 377-387.

Detroit News, September 13, 1903, "A Lover of Children Who Knows How to Make Them Laugh," p. 3.

Journal of Popular Culture, Douglas G. Greene, "W. W. Denslow, Illustrator," pp. 86-96.

New York Times, summer, 1973, December 22, 1906, p. 11.

New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1900, "A New Book for Children," p. 605.*

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Denslow, W(illiam) W(allace) 1856-1915

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