A Nautical Novelty: Dr. Seuss’ Navy

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to all as Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, began his career as cartoonist for Vanity Fair, Life and other publications before moving into advertising; most notably for Standard Oil, the parent company of Esso Marine Oil and Lubricants.

As ad man for Esso, Seuss created a menagerie of sea-dwelling creatures and a host of mariner characters that appear in numerous advertisements in boating publications such as Yachting and Motor Boating. Captain Taylor, a mariner who often dispensed tongue-in-cheek boating advice, and perhaps the most well-known of the characters, is seen here adorning a roving advertisement for Burr’s Yacht Station (New London, CT) during the Harvard-Yale Rowing Race in June of 1935. MSM Rosenfeld Collection. Acc. # 1984.187.71507F

When asked to create a campaign for Esso Marine Lube for the 1936 New York International [Motor] Boat Show, Seuss and his colleagues created 15 certificates stating that the selectee had been named an Admiral in Seuss’ Navy. The inductees, especially in the beginning, were celebrity boaters like Vincent Astor. The aim, much like today’s advertising campaigns, was to attach the Esso Marine brand to the celebrity, “If it’s good enough for [celebrity], it’s got to be good.” The campaign was supposed to be somewhat in jest, but the selectees hung their certificates up in their yachts and soon everyone wanted to be part of Seuss’ Navy, where every man was an Admiral. Certificate: MSM Acc. # 1988.107.35

With growing interest in becoming a member of Seuss’ Navy, the simple ad campaign became a full-fledged feature at the shows. Seuss’ Navy was deemed the “Fun-Makers” and sponsored boat races, games, contests, and hosted an annual “Seuss Navy Luncheon and Frolic” MSM Rosenfeld Collection. Acc. # 1984.187.85312F.

Esso marketers and salesmen even put on short plays created by Seuss. In one of Seuss’ “Little Dramas of the Deep,” “The demon sludge fish is the villain… an enlightening story for those embryo mariners who would gamble on lubricants…”- a big hit.

Seuss went on to create three 30-page Seuss Navy story booklets – with rhyming text. Seuss later said his experience working at Standard Oil taught him “conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.” Seuss published his first children’s book in 1937.

The Navy sank by 1949 as a result of what Seuss claims was a “casualty of its own commercialism.”

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Emily Mayotte