Rose Cecil O’Neill was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA on June 25, 1874 into an Irish Catholic family. Her father was a bookseller and an ardent admirer of the arts, her mother was a teacher and a performer. Rose had 5 younger siblings (2 sisters and 3 brothers). Her father struggled to support his family but was determined to educate Rose and somehow involve her in the arts. She exhibited a natural ability to draw from an early age. When she was thirteen Rose submitted an illustration to a children’s contest held by the Omaha Herald, winning first prize. As a result of this first success the judges of the competition helped O’Neill find work illustrating for local publications.
In 1893 Rose’s father took her to New York City to broaden her career opportunities. He left her in the care of the convent of the Sisters of Saint Regis. Accompanied by Nuns acting as chaperones, O’Neill began to make the rounds of the publishing houses with her illustration portfolio in hand. In the early years of the 20th century women illustrative artists were just starting to gain success; most were thought to be capable only of producing sweet sentimental images with limited appeal. O’Neill’s works included a broad range of illustrative styles. The scope of her work combined with her young age (not to mention her entourage of Nuns) must have seemed quite startling to the male dominated publishing firms she visited! But her work spoke for itself and she soon found commercial success in the city. Her illustrations in True magazine in 1896 earned her the place in history as the first published female cartoonist in America.
By the early 1900s Rose was working as a staff cartoonist for Puck. The biographer Linda Brewster reports that she often worked from home as the magazine’s office had no ladies room facilities. It was during this period that her family home in the Ozarks was purchased. It was named Bonniebrook. Rose used her success to support her family, a trait which would lead her to supporting others throughout her career. O’Neill’s first novel, The Loves of Edwy was published in 1904 and brought more recognition to her illustrative talents. In 1909 she began illustrating advertising for Jell-O and contributing her artwork to more magazines. In that same year Edward Bok, the Editor of the Ladies Home Journal asked O’Neill to think about creating a new cartoon character. An interesting letter in the collection of the State Historical Society of Missouri written by O’Neill to W Martin Johnson discusses her ideas for the Kewpies and her thoughts they might become as popular as Palmer Cox’ Brownies.
In doll researcher Janet Johl’s book The Fascinating Story of Dolls she includes correspondence with O’Neill where the artist describes the “birth” of the Kewpies recounting that the idea first took shape in her mind when as a child her baby brother was born. She would play with him and sketch him, trying to catch his expressions. As she later began to develop the Kewpies she thought back to those innocent expressions, smiles, bright little eyes and round tummy bringing those elements into her little fairy folk. She became so wrapped up in thinking about her new creations that she dreamt about them and related that it was in her dreams that the Kewpies told her their story. Rose developed a persona for the Kewpies as wanting “to do good deeds in a funny way” and the artist saw the Kewpies as the protectors and lovers of children. The first Kewpie illustrations published were in the December 1909 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The public was charmed by these drawings and the Kewpie philosophy.
Soon Kewpies, along with verses written for them by O’Neill were appearing in magazines and books and were seen on all sorts of products including glassware, linens, china services, post cards, jewelry and more. It was only natural that these characters be made into dolls as well and O’Neill began trying to get Kewpie dolls produced. She advertised for someone who could help her make a 3-dimenesional version of her character. This led her to a young sculptor/modeler named Joseph Kallus, with whom she would continue to have a business relationship for many years to come. In 1912 she connected with Fred Kolb of the George Borgfeldt Company. Using Borgfeldt’s tremendous industry connections Kolb took O’Neill’s design, as modeled by Kallus, to the Kestner factory in Waltershausen, Germany and production on all-bisque Kewpie dolls began. Rose traveled to Germany accompanied by her sister Callista who had been studying in Europe, to oversee the production details of the dolls.
O’Neill, with the help of Borgfeldt, trademarked the name Kewpie and took U.S. design patents on her creations, eventually her designs were protected world-wide. These dolls became so popular very soon another 20 to 30 German manufacturers such as Hertwig & Co., W.M. Goebel, Theodor Recknagel, and many others were contracted to make all-bisque Kewpie dolls. Kewpie dolls became a world-wide craze. Eventually Kewpie dolls would be made with bisque socket-heads, bisque shoulder-heads, in celluloid, cloth, composition, rubber, hard plastic and vinyl.
Rose O’Neill became the highest paid female illustrator in American largely based on the success of her Kewpies. It is reported that by the end of the 1910s she was worth 1.4 million dollars (almost $36 million in today’s dollars). This success allowed her to split her time between Bonniebrook and her New York apartment in Greenwich Village where she was dubbed “the queen of bohemian society.” She also kept homes in Connecticut and Italy. She moved in artistic circles and was able to support other artists as they struggled to become established. She also became an activist in the Women’s Suffragist movement using her Kewpies as a non-threatening way to sway people to the cause.
In later years Rose became interested in other artistic pursuits, studying sculpting with Auguste Rodin and working in Paris with experimental painting techniques. By the late 1930s and early 40s Rose’s luck began to change. The financial toll of her generosity in supporting her family, other artists and the spending habits of 2 ex-husbands combined with the Great Depression, and a gradual decrease in the popularity of the Kewpies all combined to consume her remaining funds. O’Neill passed away of heart failure in 1944 and was reportedly penniless at that time.
Although the Kewpies never regained the type of mass popularity they enjoyed in the first 2 decades of the 20th century they have remained a favorite among doll collectors who still eagerly seek examples of the little imps that came from the heart and the mind of one of the greatest illustrators of the early twentieth century.
John Axe Jesco’s Kewpies. Doll Raeder magazine, Feb-March 1984
Jurgen and Marianne Cieslik German Doll Studies. Annapolis: Gold Horse Publishing, 1999
Dorothy S., Elizabeth A., Evelyn J. Coleman The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Dolls Vol. I & II. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968 & 1986
Linda Edward Cloth Dolls From Ancient To Modern. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1997
Jan Foulke Kestner, King of Dollmakers. Cumberland: Hobby House Press,1982
Janet Pagter Johl The Fascinating Story of Dolls. Watkins Glen: reissued Century House, 1970
Janet Pagter Johl More About Dolls. New York: H. L. Lundquist Publications, 1946
Author – Linda Edward
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