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The artistic talents of illustrator, inventor and suffragist Rose Cecil O'Neill sparked a worldwide craze at the start of the 20th century when she turned one of her best-loved hand-drawn characters into a three-dimensional toy. This toy is none other than the instantly recognizable Kewpie doll, and it and merchandise bearing its likeness remain collectibles to this day.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., on June 24, 1874, O'Neill was one of seven children born to William and Asenath O'Neill, who moved the family to Battle Creek, Nebraska, in 1876. Rose loved to draw as a child, and she got an early professional start when she entered and won an art contest sponsored by the "Omaha World Herald" when she was 14 years old. She was invited almost immediately to begin illustrating magazine and newspaper articles. By the time she was 17 she was working professionally, illustrating "Arabian Nights" for a magazine called "The Great Divide," and she began illustrating a novel she wrote herself, "Callista," which was the name of one of her siblings.
In 1893 she traveled to New York to see the World's Fair where she got her first glimpse of modern art; she thought she might be ready to embark on a career as a novelist but others encouraged her to continue her education. So, she entered the Convent of the Sisters of St. Regis in New York City. There for three years, she refined her drawing technique and picked up a number of high-profile clients, including "Harper's Weekly," "Bazaar," "Truth" and "Collier's Weekly."
Meanwhile, her parents and siblings moved once again, to a country home in the Ozarks region of Missouri. With her earnings, Rose was able to help build a larger home for the family, which became the O'Neills' beloved Bonniebrook homestead.
Rose O'Neill continued working in New York and building on her client base; over the years her drawings would appear in the most popular magazines of the era, including "Good Housekeeping," "Ladies Home Journal," "Life," "Puck," and many others. She married Gray Lathan in 1896 (whom she divorced in 1901) and began using the signature O'Neill Lathan on her works, as at the time the field was dominated by men and this was somewhat of a help to her career. She also illustrated a variety of books, written by such authors as Parker Fillmore and Harry Leon Wilson, literary editor of "Puck," to whom she was married from 1902 to 1908.
According to O'Neill, the cherubic-looking characters upon which the Kewpie doll was based came to her in a dream; she began including these chubby, child-like "elves" in the backgrounds of many of her drawings. When the "Ladies Home Journal" editor asked her to make a series of illustrations of just these creatures alone, she did so for the publication, which planned to write verses to accompany them so they would have their very own story. Thus the "Kewpies," which performed good deeds for regular people, took on a life of their own.
The characters and their stories appeared in "Woman's Home Companion" and "Good Housekeeping" as well as in cartoons and books, and later, as paper dolls. They became an instant hit among children and adults alike. O'Neill's book The Kewpies, Their Book was released in 1910.
Inevitably, children soon expressed their desires to have an actual Kewpie to hold and play with. O'Neill moved to Europe from 1911-1914 and while attending art school in Paris, she began working on plans to mold the Kewpie into a doll. This was a challenge for her with her limited experience in sculpture, but she managed with the help of fellow students and others to create a statuette that should serve as a mold. A German factory agreed to manufacture the dolls out of bisque. The dolls hit the international marketplace with incredible success in 1912. O'Neill obtained a patent for the doll in 1913.
The Kewpies were later manufactured in Belgium, France and the United States, after the outbreak of World War II. Meanwhile, merchandising for the dolls exploded, with O'Neill publishing additional Kewpie books and others creating Kewpie dishes, calendars and other household items. O'Neill is said to have earned at least $1.5 million from the Kewpie franchise, equivalent to at least $15 million today. O'Neill lived lavishly with her fortune, purchasing homes in Connecticut, the Isle of Capris, and Greenwich Village, New York. She also continued to illustrate as well as to write novels. Her first novel, The Loves of Edwy had been published in 1904. She wrote Lady in the White Vail in 1909, a book of poetry, Master Mistress, in 1922, Garda in 1929 and The Goblin Woman in 1930.
She also continued to visit Europe regularly, and held her own artwork exhibition in Paris in 1921 at the Galerie Devambez. Stateside, she began holding salons at her Greenwich Village apartment and became a vocal supporter of women's right to vote. In addition she created other characters that became toys, including the Scootles doll in 1923, and the Ho Hos, created in 1940.
She returned to Bonniebrook in 1937 and lived out the remainder of her years there with her sister Callista. O'Neill died on April 6, 1944, shortly after completing her memoirs. She has twice been commemorated with a U.S. Postal Stamp, and 900 members of the International Rose O'Neill Club continue to collect Kewpie dolls and memorabilia.