Most people know Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) as a writer and illustrator of some of the world’s most-beloved children’s books. And while it’s true that some of his characters have not fared well since his death in 1991, his legacy as a playful moralist is secure with parents and teachers everywhere. But few people know that Geisel got his start as a satirist and illustrator for adults, publishing articles and illustrations in Judge, Life, Vanity Fair, and the Saturday Evening Post. He went on to prominence as an advertising illustrator during the Depression, most famously with a 17-year campaign for a bug-repellant called Flit—made by Standard Oil—whose slogan, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” became a popular catch phrase in the 30s.
The University of California, San Diego, has a special collection of Geisel’s advertising work from the 30s and 40s (such as the image above) for clients like Standard, NBC, and Ford. The images show Geisel the illustrator developing visual themes that characterize his children’s books—the circus imagery, elephants, dazzling physical stunts, wide-eyed, furry creatures, complex Rube Goldberg machines, and the signature disembodied pointing gloves. During World War II, Geisel shifted his focus from advertising to politics and contributed weekly cartoons to PM magazine, a liberal publication. UCSD also has an online catalog of Geisel’s political cartoons, such as the 1941 ad for U.S. Savings Bonds below.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.