November 5, 2020

From the Vault: Dr. Seuss’s Navy

A research request leads to a surprise cameo and a pleasant distraction from business as usual

March 1939 Essomarine ad in Yachting; volume from the HMM library

A few weeks ago we were browsing through bound volumes of "Yachting" magazine from the 1930s for an HMCo. related research request. Suddenly we stumbled upon an ad that looked both familiar and out of place. The imaginary creatures, the snub-nosed people, the cartoonish mechanical equipment, the distinctive penmanship... the illustrations were all by Dr. Seuss!

Original illustration for a Seuss Navy promotional drinking glass

Before he became a titan of children's literature, "Dr. Seuss" (aka Theodore Geisel) had developed his illustration style and cast of characters as an amateur cartoonist in college and then as an ad man. Standard Oil was one of his big clients and Essomarine was a subsidiary brand focused on the boating industry. Geisel began drawing these maritime-themed ads in 1935, and at the 1936 National Motor Boat Show in New York City, Essomarine launched a new interactive ad campaign: the Seuss Navy. They passed out diplomas declaring show visitors to be "admirals". The Seuss Navy had its own burgee, and ephemera such as caps, ash trays and drinking glasses bearing Seuss/Essomarine illustrations were given away. Vincent Astor - famed sailor and one-time HMCo. customer - was named one of the first admirals as part of the PR stunt. It was a great success and the Essomarine production at the National Motor Boat Shows in the following years grew into a true spectacle, even featuring a playlet called "Little Dramas of the Deep" with Seuss-designed scenery and three 30-page rhyming booklets that foreshadowed his children's books to come.

Playbill for the National Motor Boat Show "playlet"; image courtesy the UCSD Mandeville Special Collections Library

Geisel left Standard Oil in 1943 to join in the war effort, but Essomarine continued the campaign (and kept appointing admirals to the Seuss Navy) until 1948. You can still find Seuss Navy ephemera on auction sites and the old ads in vintage copies of Yachting and similar magazines from the 1930s. It is a stark contrast to the HMCo. (indeed, nearly all other maritime trade!) "Herreshoff yacht squadron" marketing from their last decades of operation. While Dr. Seuss's advertising campaigns really have nothing to do with HMCo., it is amusing to consider what was happening around the same time. These ads ran just pages away from, for example, an article written by C.F. Haffenreffer featuring the Herreshoff Amphicraft in the June 1935 issue of "Yachting" magazine - two worlds we never imagined would collide! It is remarkable to consider how radically the field of advertising and public relations had changed over the course of HMCo.'s existence, from the advertising cards of Dexter and Stone to N.G. and J.B.'s insistence they would do no traditional advertising while still taking advantage of every public marketing opportunity available. But HMCo. and Dr. Seuss did have one thing in common in their marketing approaches: they sure understood the value of a good spectacle!