Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known by the pen name Dr. Seuss, began his career by introducing the nation to his imaginative characters and cadenced text by creating advertisements for New Jersey-based Standard Oil. The company produced various consumer products derived from petroleum, and Geisel began promoting “Flit,” a popular insect repellent that guarded folks against flies and mosquitoes.In late 1927, Standard Oil’s advertising department was seeing healthy growth. The company’s main focus was promoting the sales of Standard and Eastern States Standard Oil (Esso) gasolines, lubricating oil, fuel oil and asphalt. Sales of the company’s specialty products such as Flit, however, encountered difficulties when using the department’s usual methods.
The advertising department was eventually reorganized to help promote its other products. In the January 14, 1928, issue of New York City’s “Judge” magazine, Geisel introduced his quirky lot of characters to the American public in the form of a dragon invading the bedroom of a medieval knight lying in bed, bemoaning, “Darn it all, another dragon, and just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!”
The illustration caught the eye of the wife of Standard Oil’s ad executive. According to curators of the Dr. Seuss Collection at the University of California in San Diego, Judith and Neil Morgan, after seeing the drawing the executive’s wife insisted that her husband hire Geisel, prompting a 17-year ad campaign which produced the recurring plea of “Quick, Henry! The Flit!” This quip became a common catchphrase of the era, according to the Mandeville Special Collections Library.
The library explains that “these ads, along with those for several other companies, supported the Geisels throughout the Great Depression and the nascent period of his writing career.” Geisel said, “It wasn’t the greatest pay, but it covered my overhead so I could experiment with my drawings.” Later in life he noted that the experience with creating ads for Standard Oil taught him “conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”
Other than promoting Standard Oil products, Geisel also created ads for various goods such as ball bearings, radio spots, beer and sugar. While promoting Esso products, he created a plethora of unique zoological creatures to accompany ads for commodities such as Essomarine Oil and Greases and Essolube Five-Star Motor Oil. This collection of fantastical beings included the Zero-doccus, Moto-raspus, Karbo-nockus and Oilio-gobelus.
This zoo was featured in ads warning drivers about the dangers of operating a vehicle without the protection of Standard Oil. “Printer’s Insider,” an advertising trade journal, noted that “these creatures symbolize and dramatize some of the troubles of motorists who use inferior oils. The Zero-doccus pounces on cold motors and makes quick starting difficult with ordinary oils. He and his coming friends are the creations of Dr. Seuss of ‘Quick, Henry, the Flit!’ fame.”
As his career progressed, Geisel ventured away from full page advertisements by designing a booth for Standard Oil’s Essomarine motor lube to be displayed at the 1936 National Motorboat Show. The booth created the hugely successful “Seuss Navy.” Visitors both young and old were commissioned as ‘admirals’ and were photographed alongside his eccentric creations made of cardboard. He commented, “It was cheaper to give a party for a few thousand people, furnishing all the booze, than it was to advertise in full-page ads.” By 1939 the Seuss Navy had amassed over 2,000 enthused admirals, including the internationally successful bandleader and violinist Guy Lombardo.
The same year as the debut of the Seuss Navy, “Dr. Seuss” wrote and illustrated his first children’s book titled “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” Before being accepted and published by Vangaurd Press, it was rejected 27 times. One of his most famous works, “The Cat in the Hat,” was inspired by a “Life Magazine” article criticizing children’s literacy and the constrained style of the “Dick and Jane” reading textbooks of the time. “The Cat in the Hat” was published in 1957 and used only 236 words. He said, “It is the book I’m proudest of because it had something to do with the death of the Dick and Jane primers.”
Prior to writing “The Cat in the Hat” Seuss remained best known for his Standard Oil advertisements and the “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” ads. The book has proven itself to be a classic and served as a cornerstone and a linchpin for future children’s stories. The popularity of the book also propelled him into the center of the United States’ literacy debate. Academics lauded the work because it stood up for the idea that reading should be taught with phonics and the idea that language can be taught with illustrated storybooks. Dr. Seuss went on to write more than 50 children’s books over his half-century career.