The story of how Theodore Seuss Geisel created a celebrated advertising campaign for the “Flit” in the 1930s. Oh yeah, and then became Dr. Seuss.
“Flit.” That simple monosyllable earmarks one of the most celebrated advertising campaigns of the 1930s. “Flit” was the brand name of an insecticide that had been concocted in 1923. In those days before air-conditioning (which permits us to keep all windows closed and bugs outside), every home faced summer with open windows (for cooling breezes) and a bug-spray dispenser with a supply of spray. Flit supplied both of the latter.
Flit became famous in the next decade after Theodore Seuss Geisel had been contracted to draw cartoons that illustrated with hysterical exaggeration some insect-threatening situation in which the menaced person calls for rescue by yelling: “Quick, Henry — the Flit!”
In the late 1920s, Geisel was drawing cartoons for the humor magazine, Judge, signing his work “Dr. Seuss” because, he explained, he was “saving the name Geisel for the Great American Novel.”
Not quite. At least, not according to St. Wikipedia. He began using his middle name as his signature because he had been drinking bootleg gin. This was in 1925 when Ted Geisel was a senior. He and some pals were caught imbibing during the country’s experiment in Prohibition. The laws about drinking did not, actually, prevent consumption of adult beverages — only their manufacture, transportation, and sale. But the local police, in an excess of righteousness, objected to college students’ drinking, and Geisel, who was then editor-in-chief of the campus humor magazine, lost his position as a result of the incident.
Still, Geisel continued to create cartoons for the magazine, but he escaped detection by signing them “T. Seuss” or “Seuss.” Later, he added “Dr.” to it in deference to his father, who wanted him to study medicine, according to USA Today. But he never studied medicine.
In the January 14, 1928 issue of Judge, one of his cartoons depicted a medieval knight, sprawled in bed, a snarling dragon looming over him. Said the knight: “Darn it all — another dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!”
The wife of the advertising executive handing the Flit account saw the cartoon in Judge at her hairdresser’s and urged her husband to contact the cartoonist and sign him up. (Geisel said it was bald-faced luck — a fluke, a Flit fluke: “It wasn’t even her regular hairdresser. He was booked that day, so she went someplace else. Her regular hairdresser was much ritzier and would never have had a copy of Judge in his salon.”)
Dr. Seuss’ contract lasted for the next seventeen years and presumably supplied him with enough income (at one time, $12,000 a month) that he could spend a lot of his time away from cartooning, devising, instead, the children’s books that made him famous as a doctor without a degree. Not that he gave up cartooning. He continued cartooning for Judge and expanded his client list to include the old Life humor magazine and College Humor and Liberty magazine until the early 1930s, when his contract with Flit prohibited such expeditions.
His Flit drawings permitted him to exercise his most inventive cartooning exaggerations. On one occasion, he showed a convict attacked by mosquitoes in the middle of a prison break; in another, a seance is interrupted by a genie emerging amid a swarm of bugs. In every case, the victims of the buggy attack yell the four-word cry for help: “Quick, Henry — the Flit!”
Judith and Neil Morgan in their Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel indicate the pervasiveness of the Flit advertising campaign:
“The phrase ‘Quick, Henry — the Flit!’ entered the American vernacular” and became a punchline everywhere in the culture. “A song was written about it, and Geisel’s cartoons spread from the pages of Judge and Life to newspapers, subway cards and billboards. Comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny used the tag line over the radio networks for dependable boffs, and across America, the folksy mention of a bug spray evoked laughter. Flit sales increased wildly. No advertising campaign remotely like it had succeeded before on such a grand scale. The series found its way into histories of advertising and was compared with the Burma Shave series of ubiquitous roadside rhymes. The nearest thing to criticism was an agency warning that sometimes the bugs Geisel drew were too lovable to kill.”
The Flit campaign made Geisel an icon in the realm of advertising. “The campaign was so successful,” said Phil Nel in his Dr.Seuss: American Icon, “that Flit remains one of the primary ways in which Dr. Seuss is remembered… It was the first major advertising campaign to be based on humorous cartoons.”
Despite the nation-wide acceptance of his Flit cartoons, Ted Geisel had no high opinion of his work, according to Nel, confessing on more than one occasion that he could not draw. “I still can’t draw,” he would say. “I always get the knees in wrong, and the tails. I’m always putting in too many tails. I just can’t draw, I guess. People like the Grinch. I started out to draw a kangaroo and it turns out to be a Grinch. I don’t know, all my creatures seem to turn out catlike.”
Nel, however, is quite aware of Geisel’s talent, particularly as manifest in the books he wrote for children. “To appreciate Seuss’s artistic talents,” Nel writes, “one must first examine the relationship between his art and the story. It is the balance of words and pictures that makes the books work. As John Cech observed after seeing the exhibition ‘Dr. Seuss from Then to Now,’ ‘when pictures from Seuss’s books are displayed on museum walls [without the text], one sees how utterly tied most of them are to the printed page and thus to Seuss’s texts. For Seuss is a true artist of the picture book, a brilliant master of that bimedial form, more than he is an artist whose visual works can (or are designed to) stand alone.’ Though Seuss has created art that stands alone… the picture-book art is always interdependent with his text.”
Geisel, in other words, is a cartoonist. Not a writer. Not an artist. But a cartoonist, a storyteller who conjures up his visions in a perfect blend of words and pictures. In each of his masterworks, Dr. Seuss achieved by creative instinct a mutual dependency in which neither the words nor the pictures makes as much sense alone without the other as they do together.
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