Dr. Seuss created zoological oddities for Esso products of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.
Seuss the oilman? Thirty years before the Grinch stole Christmas in 1957, many strange and wonderful critters of the children’s book author were seen in Standard Oil advertising campaigns.
During the Great Depression, fanciful creatures drawn by the future Dr. Seuss promoted Essolube and other products for Standard Oil of New Jersey. He later said his experience at Standard, “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”
In the cartoon that launched his career, Theodor Seuss Geisel drew a peculiar dragon inside a castle. The January 14, 1928, issue of New York City’s Judge magazine featured the beast. Geisel would soon introduce America to many less threatening characters inhabiting his imaginative menagerie.
“Flit,” was a popular bug spray of the day – especially against flies and mosquitoes. It was one of many Standard Oil Company of New Jersey consumer products derived from petroleum. Late in 1927, Standard Oil’s growing advertising department, which had focused on sales of Standard and Esso gasoline, lubricating oil, fuel oil and asphalt, reorganized to promote other products, according to author Alfred Chandler Jr.
“Specialties, such as Nujol, Flit, Mistol, and other petroleum by-products that could not be effectively sold through the department’s sales organization were combined in a separate subsidiary – Stanco,” noted Chandler in his book, Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise. Chandler’s 1962 book also examined the organization of General Motors, Sears, Roebuck and Co., and E.I. du Pont de Nemours.
“Quick, Henry, the Flit!”
Geisel’s fortuitous bug-spray cartoon depicted a medieval knight in his bed, facing a dragon who had invaded his room, and lamenting, “Darn it all, another dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit.”
According to the curators of the Dr. Seuss Collection at the University of California, San Diego, an anecdote in Judith and Neil Morgan’s 1995 book Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, the wife of the ad executive who handled the Standard Oil account saw the dragon cartoon.
“These ads, along with those for several other companies, supported the Geisels throughout the Great Depression and the nascent period of his writing career,” a curator explains. “At her urging, her husband hired the artist, thereby inaugurating a 17-year campaign of ads whose recurring plea, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!,” became a common catchphrase,” adds an introduction of the collection at the Mandeville Special Collections Library.
Besides promoting the Standard Oil companies Flit and Esso, Dr. Seuss’ creations helped sell such diverse goods as ball bearings, radio programs, beer brands, and sugar, notes the library, located in La Jolla, where Geisel was a longtime resident.
The library’s Dr. Seuss Collection contains original drawings, sketches, proofs, notebooks, manuscript drafts, books, audio- and videotapes, photographs, and memorabilia. About 8,500 items document Dr. Seuss’ creative achievements, beginning in 1919 with his high school activities and ending with his death in 1991.
Karbo-nockus and Other Critters
The future Dr. Seuss added a host of zoological oddities to Standard Oil’s lexicon while promoting Esso products (Esso was an acronym for Eastern States Standard Oil). His critters promoted Essomarine oil and greases as well as Essolube Five-Star Motor Oil.
Smiling, toothy creatures such as Zero-doccus, Karbo-nockus, Moto-raspus and Oilio-Gobelus appeared in advertisements that warned motorists of the hazards of driving without the protection of Standard Oil lubrication.
“Meet the Zero-doccus. He is the first if a group of terrible beasts that are being turned loose in the advertising of Essolube, Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) products,” reported the December 8, 1932, Printers’ Insider, an advertising trade journal.
Other Esso “moto-monsters” would be introduced in newspapers and outdoor posters in coming months, the trade journal proclaimed.
“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,” the article noted. “He and his coming friends are the creations of Dr. Seuss of ‘Quick, Henry, the Flit’ fame.”
The Printers’ Insider article predicted the strange Esso creatures would prove popular when they appeared in ads nationwide.
Seuss in the Esso Navy
Throughout his early hard years, these Standard Oil advertising campaigns provided steady income to Geisel and his wife. “It wasn’t the greatest pay, but it covered my overhead so I could experiment with my drawings,” he later said.
Geisel noted his advertising work allowed him to experiment creating subtle visual messages while using wacky rhymes in story telling.
In 1936, Geisel designed Standard Oil’s Essomarine booth for the National Motorboat Show – and created the phenomenally successful “Seuss Navy.” Young and old visitors were commissioned as admirals and photographed with whimsical characters made of cardboard.
By 1939, the Seuss Navy included more than 2,000 enthusiastic admirals (with such notables as bandleader Guy Lombardo). Geisel remembered that, “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.”
“Dr. Seuss” wrote and illustrated his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1936. It was rejected by publishers 27 times before Vanguard Press published it. The Cat in the Hat was inspired by a 1954 Life Magazine essay critical of children’s literacy and the stilted “See Spot Run” style of reading primers of the time.
Published in 1957, The Cat in the Hat used just 236 words – only 14 of them with two syllables. It remains his most popular work.
The former Standard Oil advertising illustrator wrote more than 50 children’s books over a half-century career that brought the world Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham and many others. Children of all ages lost a friend on September 24, 1991, when Theodor Seuss Geisel died at the age of 87.
View online the Dr. Seuss Collection: Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss, courtesy Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California.
Recommended Reading: Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss (2010). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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Citation Information – Article Title: “Seuss I am, an Oilman.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/petroleum-art/seuss-the-oilman. Last Updated: January 10, 2022. Original Published Date: December 1, 2008.