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~ Rose and Her Kewpies ~

by Dolores Hurtt

 

Rose O'Neill PhotographCecilia Rose O'Neill was born June 25, 1874 in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania to William Patrick O'Neill and Alice Asenath Cecelia Smith. Both parents were very artistic and shared their love of the arts with their children. Theyencouraged her when Rose showed an interest in drawing and writing.

In 1890, when she was sixteen, her father thought it would be a good idea for Rose to join a company of touring actors. However, she soon found that acting was not for her and left the company, returning to pursue her writing.Kissing Kewpies

In 1893 she left their home in Omaha, Nebraska and moved to New York.  Having been self-taught until then, she enrolled in art classes and began to do illustrations for magazines.

Because all illustrators at that time were men, she signed her work C.R.O. to disguise her identity.  Around this time, her family left Omaha and moved to a cabin in a rural area of the Ozarks in Missouri.  Their new home, which they named Bonniebrook was to play a large part in the rest of Rose’s life.

In 1895 she began working for Puck magazine as a full time illustrator and the following year married her sweetheart Gray Latham. Gray appeared frequently as a male model in Rose’s work and she began to sign her work ”O’Neill-Lathum”. Unfortunately, Gray had a habit of spending her money as quickly as she made it. As the sole provider for her family living in the Ozarks, Rose and Gray’s conflicts over money only added to what was already a tumultuous marriage. Ultimately, in 1901, Rose divorced Gray and returned with a broken heart to her family and Bonniebrook.

Bisque Kewpie DollSoon after her return, Rose began receiving mysterious letters and packages from a secret admirer, later known to be Harry Leon Wilson, the editor at Puck magazine. Ever the romantic, Rose fell in love with his letters and the two were wed in 1902. While married to Harry, in 1904, Rose published her first illustrated book, The Loves of Edwy. Over time, Harry’s sullen, moodiness clashed with Rose’s sunny disposition and though the two remained close friends, they divorced in 1907.

1909 marked the year Rose would find greater wealth and fame. She began drawing pictures and writing verses about a doll that would eventually become a household name.  She said she saw Kewpies in her dreams and they were everywhere, even sitting on her head and flying above her.   The name of the "cupid" figures was spelled with a "K" to make it funnier, Kewpie meaning "small cupid".  She fashioned them after her baby brother and got the idea for their topknot from some turnips.

To Rose, her Kewpies represented goodness. Her philosophy and their theme was "Do good deeds, in a funny way. The world needs to laugh or at least to smile more than it does".

Pictures of Kewpie drawings were first published in Woman’s Home Companion in December 1909 and later in Ladies Home Journal. They would appear regularly in Good Housekeeping for another 25 years.

In 1913 Rose’s Kewpies became dolls.  She applied for the first copyright, for the bisque Kewpie, on December 17, 1912 and received it on March 4, 19Kewpie Doll, The Thinker13. She went to Germany to have the dolls made, bypassing American companies, and traveled there to show them exactly how she wanted the dolls to look. She gave detailed instructions from the clay making to the final painting.  Each Kewpie had side-glancing eyes, little blue wings and yellow top knots.  The first Kewpie trademark, #92612, was registered July 15, 1913.

It took 30 German companies to keep up with the demand, when Kewpies debuted in 1913.  Five million sold over the next year.  It is said some soldiers kept one in their pocket for luck during WW1.  However, after the war, Germany no longer made the Kewpies for Rose.

As a workaholic, still illustrating for several publications and her monthly Kewpie comic pages, Rose began to get overloaded. Finally, she placed an ad for an assistant to help with managing and marketing.  She chose Joseph Kallus, a 17 year old student from the Pratt Institute of Art.  Her sister, Calista, also signed on as business manager to help with rising demands.

In 1916 Joseph Kallus started a new firm, the Rex Doll Co., and began producing the Kewpies in composition, plastic and vinyl.  With the immense popularity of the Kewpies, sales and royalties of the dolls and figurines made both Rose and Joseph Kallus very wealthy. Rose used some of the money to remodel Bonniebrook into a 14 room Ozark mansion. She and her sister also kept apartments in New York Scootles Dolland Rose purchased a ten acre estate in Westpoint, Connecticut which she named Carabas Castle and a villa on Capri Island near Italy.

In 1919, Rose met a Norwegian couple, Matta and Berger Lie. She showed them her drawings she called "Sweet Monsters".  They were impressed and offered her a studio in Norway, where she could produce the pagan-like drawings. Some of them were turned in sculptures.  One called "Embrace of the Tree" was installed at Bonniebrook.

While she was in Europe, she studied with French artist, Auguste Roden, who was considered the most important sculptor of his time.  Her Monster drawings were exhibited in a gallery in Paris and later in Wildenstein Gallery in New York.

In 1923 Rose and Joseph collaborated on "Scootles", a more boyish version of Kewpie.  He was envisioned as a tourist "scooting" all over the world.  Though he never gained the popularity of the original Kewpie, he is still very collectible.

Rose also created a laughing little Buddha she called Ho-Ho.  She was very interested in the Orient and felt this delightful little creature would be loved by children and adults. Instead, it caused controversy and was offensive to many.  The Buddhists saw it as undignified and wrote to the Kallus companHoHo Dolly asking that it not be made. The word "Buddha" was removed from the items and records and was known simply as Ho-Ho from then on.

Rose was a very beautiful woman and quite fashionable, dressing in flowing gowns.  She entertained many artists and intellectuals in her New York apartment.  She also held parties for fledgling artists at her various estates. Often times, guests would attend only to stay and live there. Kind and generous, Rose never had the heart to ask them to leave. Her friend, Charles Caryl Coleman from whom she’d purchased her island villa stayed on there until his death.

Rose continued with her writing, publishing four adult novels and a book of poetry. She also wrote four children's books.  She illustrated some of the books written by family friends, Booth Tarkington and his wife.  Her second husband, novelist and playwright Harry Wilson, was also working with Mr. Tarkington on a play for Broadway.  The four of them traveled to Italy and vacationed there while the play was being written.

By the 1930s, still supporting her entire family and the friends living at her various estates, Rose’s finances began to suffer. Magazines began to replace illustrations with photographs and her Kewpies weren’t bringing in as much income as they had before. Eventually, in 1936, she was forced to sell her Red Riding Hood Kewpie Dollproperties and return to Bonniebrook. That same year Rose’s father, “Papa O’Neill” died, followed two years later by her beloved mother “Meemie”.

On April 6, 1944, at the home of her nephew, Rose O’Neill passed away, impoverished at the age of 69. She and her sister Calista, who died two years later, were buried at Bonniebrook. During her life, Rose was a novelist, painter, poet, sculptor, business woman, art collector, philosopher and activist for Women’s Suffrage. Though it never materialized, she even discussed making a movie about her Kewpie’s.

Rose’s name may not be well known outside the collecting community, but she is said to have made well over five thousand drawings, numerous paintings in oil and watercolor and countless pages of writing, almost all of which were stored in the rooms and over flowing attic at Bonniebrook. Tragically, just a year after her death, Bonniebrook burned to the ground.

Although much of Rose’s work was destroyed in the fire, shortly before her death she had been convinced to move a large number of her priceless possessions to the School of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri. Her nephew, Paul O’Neill picked them up along with many of her unframed drawings just two days before the fire.

In 1967, Pearl Hodges of Branson, Missouri started the first collector’s organization of Rose O’Neill’s work. There are now national and international Rose O'Neill clubs.  The California Rose O’Neill Association (CRO’NA) Kewpie Collectors is the largest of these.  In addition, Branson hosts an annual "Rose O'Neill Kewpiesta" to preserve her memory and The Nations Rose O'Neill club publishes a bi-annual "Kewpiestra Kourier" for their members.

Before her death, Rose assigned all rights to the Kewpies to Joseph Kallus, who continue to manufacture them through his own firm, The Cameo Doll Company. After Joseph retired, the rights to manufacture Kewpies changed hands twice before 1982, when he met with Nancy Villasenor, President of Jesco. In Nancy, Joseph felt he’d finally found someone who would continue his legacy of excellence in creation of the Kewpies and his own work. After they had finished the initial transfer of rights, Joseph Kallus was killed suddenly in a traffic accident. His daughter Rita supervised transport of the doll molds to California. She included with them, Joseph’s own doll designs, business records and Rose O’Neill’s artwork which he’d kept in his apartment.

The Kewpie dolls of today are manufactured by Charisma, a doll company owned by Marie Osmond. Although their popularity has never risen again to the heights it enjoyed when Rose O’Neill first created them, their appeal has survived for over a century, perhaps because they do indeed bring the laughter and smiles to the world that Rose intended them to.

 

 

Citations:

The Best of Doll Reader, Volume 1, Published 1980, Hobby House Press
200 Years of Dolls, 3rd Edition, Dawn Herlocher, Copyright 2005, Krause Publications
Kewpies, Dolls & Art, 2nd Edition, John Axe, Copyright 1990, Hobby House Press
Bonniebrook Historical Society, Website Copyright 2012, http://www.roseoneill.org/mainpage.html#/
Illustration Art Solutions, Website Copyright 2010-2012, http://www.illustration-art-solutions.com/the-kewpies.html

 

 

 

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