Unorthodox Taxidermy of Dr. Seuss

A glimpse into the rare 1930s sculptures of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s Marine Muggs set

By Jana Soeldner Danger

Dilemma Fish

Fired by sparks from an unparalleled imagination, they’re whimsical and wonderful creatures, each with a unique personality. Collectors covet them, using them to create mini menageries designed to delight—and to reflect the nonsense and fantasy that Dr. Seuss believed were important to living happily. But the Unorthodox Taxidermy sculptures, one of his lesser known art forms, actually began as an attempt to breathe life into an advertising campaign for a very dull product.

Dr. Seuss, cartoonist, animator, artist and the author of scores of beloved children’s books, began his career in the 1930s as an advertising executive. One of his clients was a company called Essomarine, and his job was to sell its motorboat oils and lubricants. To make the brand stand out from competitors, he drew a series of fish that he incorporated into the ads.

“They were imaginary creatures that might wreak havoc on your boating experiences,” said Mike Hardin, managing director of the Northbrook, IL – based Chase Group, publishers of the Dr. Seuss Project. “To get people to remember the brand, he used this wacky campaign. He’s widely credited with being the first person to use humor to sell a product.”

Sea Turtle

Two Dimensions to Three
The creatures then were two-dimensional. But later Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, would turn them into three-dimensional sculptures inspired by his love of animals. As a child, he spent many hours at the zoo in Springfield, MA. “His mother encouraged him to draw the animals he saw there on his bedroom wall,” said Valerie Jackson, owner of the Ann Jackson Gallery in Roswell, GA, which exhibits authorized replicas made from molds of the original sculptures.

Later his father, Theodor Robert Geisel, became superintendent of the zoo. When animals passed away, he would send parts of them to his son, who by then was an adult living and working in New York City. “He did it to encourage his son’s creativity, and it helped to produce the genius and cultural icon he became,” Hardin said.

“Theodor used the animal parts to create sculptures he called Unorthodox Taxidermy, and some of the fish in the Marine Muggs set resemble drawings in his original Essomarine campaign. But there was more to it than that.

“The sculptures were what he imagined the animals would like to be reincarnated as,” Hardin says. “Each one is infused with human characteristics and a human personality. They reflect our humanity in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.”

Some of the creatures, sculpted from plaster and mounted on wood plaques as a taxidermist might do, eventually found their way into Geisel’s beloved stories. “We can see how some of his early ideas and characters evolved into another setting and found a home in his children’s books,” Hardin said.

Powerless Puffer

A Chance Encounter
The books, for which Geisel is best known, might not have happened if not for a chance encounter. After pitching his first book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, to more than 25 publishers and having it rejected by all of them, Geisel was walking down a New York City street on his way home, determined to set fire to the manuscript. “He was terribly discouraged,” Jackson said. “But he just happened to run into a college friend who had just been hired by Vanguard. The friend took him to meet his editor, and the rest is history. If he’d been walking on the other side of the street, we might never have had these books.”

Becoming Dr. Seuss
Geisel began writing under the pen name Dr. Seuss while he was still studying at Dartmouth and editor of the literary magazine there. After being caught hosting a drinking party in his room during the height of Prohibition, he was kicked out of extracurricular activities. To continue writing, he had to adopt a pseudonym. Seuss – which was really pronounced to rhyme with “voice” not “juice”— was his mother’s maiden name.

Flaming Herring

Writing Was Murder
Illustrating was easier for Dr. Seuss than putting words on paper. “Drawing came naturally to him,” Hardin said. “He said the artwork was the easy part, but the writing was murder. He wanted his books to be perfect.”

Geisel was adept at using language sparingly. In the 1960s, his editor bet him $50 that he couldn’t write a book using just 50 words. The editor lost. Green Eggs and Ham has exactly that number.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Dr. Seuss Project, and his works remain very popular. “The taxidermy is perhaps the gem of the whole project,” Hardin said. “A three-dimensional Dr. Seuss creation is so unexpected. He had a lot of fun with them, and they’re fun to live with. That’s why people collect them.”

Unorthodox Taxidermy of Dr. Seuss