The story of Dr. Seuss's Navy – or, how a PR man became a giant of children's literature
Fabled children's book author Dr. Seuss once said that his experience working at Standard Oil 'taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.'
Two decades before The Cat ever donned a hat, Theodor Seuss Geisel was an oil industry ad man who was also the architect of a wacky navy, named for himself – a sort of PokemonGo of the late 1930s.
On March 2nd, fans will celebrate the 113th birthday of Dr. Seuss, as Geisel is now known, but precious few will recall the Seuss Navy, Geisel's biggest success as an ad man and the tipping point of his life as he moved from illustrator to children’s author.
It was all about drumming up publicity for a client. "Back in 1935, while working in the ad department of the Standard Oil Company, Geisel was tasked with creating a campaign to launch Esso Marine Lube for the New York International Boat Show that was coming up in 1936," Bruce Wells, executive director for the American Oil and Gas Historical Society in Washington, D.C., said in an interview, " Esso (which still exists in Europe today) was part of Standard Oil which today is part of Exxon Mobil.
Geisel and his colleagues created an interactive campaign that engaged adults in boat races, games, contests, and an annual “Seuss Navy Luncheon and Frolic.” All manner of merchandise and prizes were created by Esso, some of which still haunt eBay today.
The project made strong use of celebrity connections. "Starting small at one of the motor boat shows [the 31st Annual National Motor Boat Show at Grand Central Palace in NYC, January 17, 1936], we printed up a few diplomas, and we took about fifteen prominent people into membership – Vincent Astor and sailors like that, who had tremendous yachts – so we could photograph them at the boat show receiving their certificates,” Geisel said in “An informal reminiscence” at his alma mater, Dartmouth College.
"We waited to see what happened,” Geisel added. “Well, Astor and Guy Lombardo and a few other celebrities hung these things in their yachts. And very soon everyone who had a putt-putt wanted to join the Seuss Navy.”
The pivotal point of Geisel's PR career came with his decision to generate three, 30-page, Seuss Navy story booklets with rhyming text and his crew of characters, says collector and Seuss expert Gregg Philipson of Austin, Texas, in a phone interview. Geisel later said his experience working at Standard Oil “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”
“While Geisel had done rhymes in cartoons for magazines, Seuss Navy was really his first foray into creating rhyming stories as books,” says Philipson, who specializes in Seuss’s works in advertising as well as his World War II-era political cartoons. “I think he enjoyed the new challenge and it was not long after that, he published ‘And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.’”
So how did Seuss move from doing PR for an oil company to becoming an icon in the field of children's books? “I would like to say I went into children's-book work because of my great understanding of children," Seuss quipped in the Dartmouth interview. But actually, he continued, "I went in because it wasn't excluded by my Standard Oil contract."
According to Philipson, the Seuss Navy boasted over 2,000 Admirals, minted between 1936 and 1948. Yet few people today even know it existed, except, perhaps those who happen to pick up this month’s edition of Waterway Guide (WG) Magazine’s 70th Anniversary issue (available for free at most East Coast marinas).
Apparently, WG reprinted what Philipson referred to as “an exceptionally rare” 1959 Seuss Navy advertisement for Esso Marine, pretty much by sheer dumb luck.
The illustration features a classic Dr. Seuss character in a black suit with fringed epaulettes, derby/bowler hat, holding a striped parasol as he pilots a freakish, steam-powered, craft with oddly bent paddle wheels.
“’I can always tell a man from the cut of his jib,’ says Captain Taylor,” the ad copy reads. “Just as I can tell the quality of a gasoline by the sound of my engine.” Captain Taylor is a fictional character who routinely dispensed tongue-in-cheek boating advice throughout the series.
The throwback ad is one of many chosen from various advertisers that the magazine’s staff picked at random to pull from archival copies and sprinkle throughout the issue to give it a retro feel for the 70th anniversary. It is the only Seuss-powered ad in the entire 70-year WG archive.
"We really had no idea of the historical significance of the ad when we put it into the magazine, except from our own perspective," says Ed Tillett, editor-in-chief and general manager of Waterway Guide (WG) Media of Deltaville, Virginia. " During a staff meeting it became a topic of conversation that Dr. Seuss had illustrated it. When we dug into it, this treasure trove of history all came to light."
The WG ad, was actually drawn in 1947 for the third illustrated story booklet of the Seuss Navy campaign, “The Log Of The Good Ship,” says Charles Cohen, author of five books on Seuss including, “The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing but the Seuss: A Visual Biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel” in a phone interview. It was reprinted in 1959 when Esso Marine rebooted the 1930s campaign to capitalize on the newfound success of their former employee when “The Cat in the Hat” became popular.
Seuss Navy certificates and marketing paraphernalia were produced from 1939 through 1949, even after Geisel left Esso to join the war effort in 1943.
But as far as Geisel was concerned, the project became a casualty of its own commercialism. "They put advertising on them, and the Navy promptly died," he concluded in the Dartmouth interview. "The fun had gone out of it, and the Seuss Navy sank."
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct title of the American Oil and Gas Historical Society and Bruce Wells's role there as executive director.]