The Kewpie Doll holds a place in America’s hearts and a place on the shelves of collectors of kitsch.
Rose O’Neill, the creator of these iconic dolls, was an acclaimed artist and author whose works went far beyond her cherub-like characters. Born 139 years ago today in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and raised on the plains of Nebraska, O’Neill began developing her talents at a tender age.
Young Rose’s parents were highly supportive. Her father left art supplies and pencils around the home so she could sketch whenever the mood struck. At one point, he even considered withdrawing her from school to focus her time and energy on art.
His efforts paid off. At the age of 13, Rose won first prize in a children’s drawing contest sponsored by the Omaha World Herald. Within a few years, she fully launched her career, illustrating for several periodicals. The payments she earned helped supplement her father’s meager income.
Soon after, O’Neill moved to New York, where she obtained a number of high-profile clients including Kellogg’s and Jell-O and publications such Harper’s Weekly, Bazaar, Ladies Home Journal. At the same time, she was exposed to sculpture and modern art, further broadening her horizons.
The Kewpies were born in a dream O’Neill had and she began including them in the backgrounds of her illustrations. At the request of Ladies Home Journal, she created a series of drawings featuring the characters. They became popular with both children and adults and spawned a series of cartoons and books.
Popular demand led to the manufacture of the dolls, which O’Neill created in 1912 while attending art school in Paris. They were an instant hit on the international marketplace, making O’Neill a wealthy woman.
O’Neill was a female working in a field which, in the era, was dominated by men. This may have inspired her dedication to the suffrage movement. She created several posters to support women’s rights. She also backed many charities and gave money away to friends, family and other aspiring artists.
In her later years, O’Neill moved to the family estate of Bonniebrook near Branson, MO. Having exhausted the fortune she made from the Kewpie line, O’Neill passed away impoverished in 1944.
To this day, the International Rose O’Neill Club Foundation holds an annual convention in Branson to celebrate the woman and her Kewpies.