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~ Joseph Kallus, Interpreter of the Kewpie Doll ~

by Dolores Hurtt

 

Joseph Kallus IllustrationJoseph Kallus, at 17, was a scholarship student at the Fine Arts College of the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn. During that time, he answered an advertisement for an assistant placed by artist Rose O'Neill and was hired in 1912 to sculpt and cast molds. Rose O'Neill and the Borgfeldt Co were working together to make and distribute Kewpie dolls.

It is a common practice in the doll industry for the designer to initiate the idea for a doll and do a rough concept of her design. But the actual modeling and casting is done by an assistant. The designer has the final approval and may suggest changes be made until it meets with the original vision. When Joseph entered Pratt Institute, as a student, he had not considered being a doll designer but, from the time he began working with Rose, dolls were his lifelong passion and career.

The Borgfeldt Co. had been formed in 1881 to import dolls, toys and figurines from Europe to be distributed in America. It was started by three partners, George Borgfeldt, Marcell Kahle and Joseph L. Kahle. When Kahle and Rose met with the young student Joseph and saw the presentation he made, they were very impressed.

Kewpie DollKewpies were manufactured in Germany prior to World War I. Other companies involved with the production included J.D. Kestner, Gebr. Voight and Herman Voight. Karl Standfuss made the celluloid Kewpies and Margaret Steiff produced the cloth Kewpies. After the war ended, Germany no longer made the products. In 1916 Joseph founded the Rex Doll Co. to produce Kewpie Dolls.

At one time Joseph took three Kewpie heads, made of plaster of Paris, to his class at Pratt Institute to give a presentation about what he was working on. He showed the class and his instructor original works of Rose O'Neill and described how he was creating the models and molds, asking for comments or criticism. Then in 1974, when a lawsuit was in process to protect the copyrights for the Kewpie dolls, a classmate, Dorothy Gregory Moffet from the Pratt Institute, submitted an affidavit describing that class and stating it was the first time she had seen a Kewpie doll. Kewpie was unlike any doll she had seen before, with its topknot and wings. At that time, she said she and Joseph were probably the only ones still alive from the class.

Borgfeldt Co. controlled the production rights and distribution of all Kewpies, dolls and figurines. With permission, the Rex Co. produced Kewpies in composition and they were distributed by the Tip Top Toy Co. This company was a distributor of carnival prizes. In those days, carnival prizes were a much higher quality than they are today.

A wood pulp Bye-Lo was made for Borgfeldt Co. but Mr Kallus said it was very difficult to achieve a perfect eye opening for the small sleep eyes. It took careful sanding to get the opening to allow the eyes to work smoothly. These dolls were marked with the usual Bye-Lo markings.

Scootles DollJoseph Kallus received the first copyright for a doll he had designed, named Baby Bundy, in 1918. It was produced at the Mutual Doll Co. of which he was president. Other dolls manufactured at Mutual were Kewpie, Baby Bundie and Bo-Fair Dollie. A specially designed socket joint was used on a few of these dolls.

Joseph resigned from Mutual in 1921 and started the Cameo Doll Products Co. in 1922. Cameo was located in Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania from 1933 to 1968. A fire in 1934 nearly destroyed the plant. When it was rebuilt, they continued making Kewpies, and added manufacturing for a variety of other doll companies, including Effanbee (owned by Noma Electric, circa late 1940s). The dolls were shipped to customers in boxes printed with the company name and information.

President Roosevelt asked Mr. Kallus to come to Washington in 1933 to consult with him on possible ways to increase marketing and help to bring back the economy after the depression.

Joseph and Rose worked together on designing Scootles, a little boy figure, similar to Kewpie, who was thought to be a traveler, scooting from country to country. While being a darling doll, it never reached the popularity of the Kewpies.

When Rose was illustrating for Ladies Home Journal in 1909, she drew the first Miss Peep, but didn't carry it on to her later work. She gave the doll’s full name in the article as Miss Gwendalyn Van Shuyler Peeps. It is thought that Mr. Kallus created the molds for Miss Peep on his own. He went to hospitals and sketched newborns using these sketches when making her model. Miss Peep was a very popular baby doll, looking and feeling like a newborn. Some were made with hinged joints. Joseph said the original Miss Peep had a cloth body and latex limbs.

Joseph made a "Little Annie Rooney" doll that was a creation of Jack Collins, writer and illustrator of the comic strip by that name. Annie was made in all bisque and also as a fully jointed composition doll. He also made his own version of Disney’s "Mickey Mouse".

At one time Joseph was hired to do a comic strip, but before it could be printed, the man who had hired him died. It never materialized, even though Joseph had done the drawings.

Before her death in 1944, Rose attempted to transfer the rights to produce the Kewpies to Joseph, but the transaction was not completed. Margie DollAfter her death, the rights were assigned to Kallus by John Hugh O'Neill, her nephew and heir. In 1955 Joseph requested that rights for all of Rose's books be transferred to him, so he could protect them along with the dolls.Kallus tried to negotiate with American Character Doll Co. in 1960 wanting them to produce Kewpies under license to Cameo. The company denied the request because they’d had conflicts with him in the past when he accused them of attempting to copy his original work. They did not want to deal with his personality. Several companies found him difficult to negotiate with and refused his requests to do business.

In 1969, Strombecker of Chicago began production, under license to Kallus. They encouraged him to let Hallmark print greeting cards, using the Kewpie images, to further promote them. In 1973 Strombecker and Cameo terminated their agreement because Joseph was not given the privilege of approving all samples. He felt that not doing so could compromise the quality he required.

Joseph lived in New York City and Miami, Florida. He worked from his home, often getting his ideas very late into the night and immediately starting work on them. His wife sometimes complained about him working at night, but he said he had to do the work when the ideas were fresh. Though married, with a daughter named Rita, work remained very clearly the center of his life. He would often make calls to people during these late night sessions and talk for hours.

As Joseph got older, he did not spend time in the Cameo factory. He left the work and the management to two women, Margaret Burgess and Mary Farnun. He had full confidence in them and only visited the factory a few times a year. Although the equipment was old, he didn't do updates and keep it repaired, but he expected absolute perfection in the finished product. He relied heavily on Margaret and Mary to handle any issues. Because wages were low, he had a hard time getting men to work there and do the heavy work. But the two ladies who worked in and managed his factory were very resourceful. By placing a stencil over a doll’s face and using a spray gun, Mary found she could paint 400 doll faces a day and still go home by 4 P.M. Since Margaret didn't enjoy the painting, she did the job of setting the eyes.

While Joseph did not celebrate Christmas himself, each year he treated his workers to a lavish Christmas party, sparing no expense. He would often call the plant to see how the party arrangements were coming along.

Purie Glass Co bought the Cameo factory to expand the space for their own company, but Kallus retained the rights to Cameo and its molds. He tried to negotiate with The College of the Ozarks to produce the dolls, but could not reach an agreement with them. They’d had issues with him in the past and did not want to deal with him. He was a very difficult man to work with and that seemed to worsen with age.

Miss Peep DollMiss Peep Doll By the 1980's it became difficult to protect copyrights and some likenesses of Cameo’s dolls were made and sold illegally. However, these products were of much poorer quality than anything under Joseph’s control.

When Kallus was 83, thieves broke into his basement in Brooklyn, and stole a great many valuable items from the past. Taken were Kewpie models and designs, patent materials, original models of Kewpie and Scootles and other priceless originals. Joseph was heartbroken over the tragic loss. The police, having no idea the value of what had been taken, treated it as just a theft of some old dolls and clothes. The items were never recovered. The loss was of unimaginable value then and would be priceless now.

Many American companies would have purchased the rights to the Kewpie dolls, if given the chance, but Joseph sold them to Nancy Villasenor of Jesco Inc. She had traveled to New York in 1982 to meet with him when was 89 years old. She impressed him as someone who would continue to maintain the quality he had always insisted upon. He was more interested in having the product remain up to his standards, than the amount of money he would sell it for. He agreed to transfer all rights for the Kewpie and Cameo designs to Nancy and the Jesco Company. They began the transaction, but before it was finished, Joseph Kallus was injured in a hit and run accident and died as a result. His daughter, Rita, finished the work Joseph had started and supervised the move of materials from his apartment in New York to California. Items shipped included all original molds, 21 trunks of Cameo dolls and clothes, patterns and Rose O'Neill’s artwork. Along with these were boxes of files and business records.

Joseph gave many original models of Kewpies and other works to The College of the Ozarks. They are now displayed at the Ralph Foster Museum, along with artwork of Rose O'Neill. A design for the Abraham Lincoln penny was carved by Mr. Kallus and is on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

The doll world owes a debt of gratitude to Rose O'Neill and Joseph Kallus for the beautiful treasures they designed and produced. Collectors can smile at the cute faces looking out from their cases and feel that warm feeling the Kewpies and other dolls radiate. Truly they “do good things in a funny way."

 

 

 

Citations:

Kewpies, Dolls & Art, 2nd Edition, John Axe, Copyright 1990, Hobby House Press

Planet Smethport Project, Virtual Historic Smethport & McKean County Project, 1998-2012
Smethport Area School District, Ross Porter, Project Director, http://www.smethporthistory.org/index.htm
http://www.smethporthistory.org/port.allegany/cameodoll/jokalluskewpie.htm

Doll Reference, Cameo Dolls 1922-1970s, Antique to Vintage Cameo Dolls Identified, Copyright 2000-2013
http://www.dollreference.com/cameo_dolls.html

 

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