Discover Dr. Seuss’s Audacious Advertisements from the 1930s & 40s: All on Display in a Digital Archive

I well remem­ber learn­ing that Dr. Seuss’s real name was Theodor Geisel, most­ly because I found Theodor Geisel was just as much fun to say as “Dr. Seuss.” Both names rolled around in the mouth, did som­er­saults and back­flips off the tongue like the author’s mul­ti­tude of strange­ly rub­bery char­ac­ters. With his Rube Gold­berg machines, minis­cule Whos, enor­mous Hor­tons, and moun­tains of com­ic absur­di­ty, Seuss is like Swift for kids, his sto­ries full of fan­tas­tic satire along­side much good clean com­mon sense. Books like Hor­ton Hears a Who and The Grinch Who Stole Christ­mas are chock full of “pos­i­tive mes­sages,” writes Amy Chyao at the Har­vard Polit­i­cal Review, as well as tren­chant social cri­tique for five-year-olds.

Among the many lessons, “embrac­ing diver­si­ty is per­haps the sin­gle most salient one embed­ded in many of Dr. Seuss’s books.” Geisel did not always espouse this val­ue. There are those who read Hor­ton’s refrain, “a person’s a per­son no mat­ter how small,” as penance for work he did as a polit­i­cal car­toon­ist dur­ing World War II, when he drew what Jonathan Crow described in a pre­vi­ous post as “breath­tak­ing­ly racist” depic­tions of the Japan­ese, pro­mot­ing the big­otry that led to vio­lence and the intern­ment of Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, an action he vig­or­ous­ly sup­port­ed.

You can see many of his polit­i­cal car­toons at UC San Diego’s dig­i­tal library, “Dr. Seuss Went to War.” UCSD also hosts an online archive of Geisel’s adver­tis­ing work, which sus­tained him through­out much of the 30s and 40s, and not all of which has aged well either.

Geisel lat­er expressed regret for his blan­ket anti-Japan­ese atti­tudes after a trip to Japan in 1953. And he lat­er made sev­er­al anti-racist car­toons against Jim Crow laws and anti-Semi­tism. These might have been meant to atone for more of his less well-known work, adver­tise­ments fea­tur­ing crude, ugly stereo­types of Africans and Arabs.

You will find some of these ads in the USCD archive; Geisel did truck in some bla­tant­ly inflam­ma­to­ry images. But he most­ly drew innocu­ous, yet visu­al­ly excit­ing, car­toons like the one at the top, one of the dozens of ads he drew dur­ing a 17-year cam­paign for Flit, an insect repel­lant made by Stan­dard Oil.

Geisel did ads for Stan­dard Oil’s main prod­uct, pro­mot­ing Essol­ube motor oil, fur­ther up, with the kind of crea­ture that would lat­er inhab­it his children’s books. He got irrev­er­ent­ly high con­cept with a GE ad set in hell, pub­lished explic­it­ly under the pen name Dr. Theophras­tus Seuss. And just above, in a brochure for the Nation­al Broad­cast­ing Com­pa­ny, he intro­duces the visu­al aes­thet­ic of Horton’s jun­gle, with a troupe of stereo­typ­i­cal grass-skirt­ed Africans that might have come from one of Hergé’s offen­sive colo­nial­ist Tintin comics. (Both Seuss’s and Hergé’s ear­ly work are tes­ta­ments to the com­mon co-exis­tence of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics with often con­temp­tu­ous or con­de­scend­ing treat­ment of non­white peo­ple in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.)

The Seuss adver­tise­ments archive shows us the artist’s devel­op­ment from visu­al puns and quirks to the ful­ly-fledged mechan­i­cal sur­re­al­ism of his mature style, as in the Nation­al Broad­cast­ing Com­pa­ny brochure above, with its musi­cal con­trap­tion the “Zim­ba­phone,” a pre­cur­sor to the many cacoph­o­nous, over­com­pli­cat­ed instru­ments to come. It is when he is at his most inven­tive that Geisel is at his best. When he aban­doned lazy, mean-spir­it­ed stereo­types, his work embraced a world of joy­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty and weird­ness.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dr. Seuss Draws Anti-Japan­ese Car­toons Dur­ing WWII, Then Atones with Hor­ton Hears a Who!

Dr. Seuss’ World War II Pro­pa­gan­da Films: Your Job in Ger­many (1945) and Our Job in Japan (1946)

Neil Gaiman Reads Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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