Kewpie Dolls

They are idolized in song, commemorated on postage stamps, loved by little girls, and prized by collectors. "They," of course, refer to the Kewpie Dolls that Rose Cecil O'Neill, 1874-1944, created in the early 1900s.

The idea for O'Neill's beloved "Kewpies" can be traced to the Greek and Roman mythology she was fond of reading as a youngster growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. Her father was a full-time book dealer and the O'Neill household was never short of books. "They often served as chairs in our house," O'Neill is quoted as saying in explaining the plethora of books in their home. Both her parents were creative individuals and encouraged Rose, the second oldest of seven children, to develop her artistic talents that were obvious from an early age.

For the most part O'Neill, who would gain fame as an illustrator, poet, writer, sculptor, inventor, and suffragette, was a mostly self-taught artist. At age 14, she won a drawing contest sponsored by the Omaha World Herald for area school children. By age 19, she had written her first novel, Callista, and illustrated it with 63 of her own drawings. In 1893 she took the manuscript, together with a portfolio of her other work, and headed for New York. On the way to the Big City, she stopped in Chicago to visit the World's Fair where, for the first time, she saw the work of world-famous artists and artisans.

In New York, O'Neill took up residence with the sisters of the St. Regis Convent where she lived for the next three years. During that time she earned her living free-lancing as a magazine illustrator while continuing to fine-tune her craft. Accompanied by nuns on her sales calls to the magazine publishers of New York City, her work began to be recognized in the industry and appeared in such publications, as Bazaar, Collier's Weekly, Harper's Monthly, and Truth.

Edward Bok, editor of Ladies Home Journal, was aware of O'Neill's magazine work and was sufficiently impressed with it to invite her to illustrate a series of children's verses he had planned for the publication. As a writer in her own right, the ambitious artist was not about to let an opportunity slip by to get her own by-line and O'Neill ended not only creating the round-tummied, elf-like creatures to illustrate the text but also wrote the stories. The series was begun in 1910.

For a name for her impish creatures, she reached back to her childhood reading of Greek and Roman mythology. Her early doodles resembled Cupid, god of love in Roman mythology, and it is not much of a stretch, a little change in "creative" spelling, to come up with Kewpie - especially since Rose is known to have had a predilection for baby talk.

Her artwork resembling a cupid also illustrated her children's poems in Good Housekeeping and Woman's Home Companion magazines as well as appearing in the Sunday newspaper cartoon sections. Kewpies, of course, were also the raison d'tre of her several Kewpie books. The first, entitled The Kewpies and Dottie Darling, was published in 1910. It was followed by The Kewpies, Their Book, and The Kewpie Primer, both released in 1912.

Rose quickly recognized her cartoon characters' potential as toy dolls and her impish creatures began to appear as paper doll cut-outs. They were the first double-sided paper dolls produced in America. Soon they were followed by three-dimensional, real toy dolls that children could cuddle. Her various artistic enterprises made her one of the best known and highest paid artists of her time.

O'Neill explained that the idea for her Kewpies came to her in a dream although it is more likely that the elfin figures she created in 1909 had been developing in her mind over many years. For example, she had been using little cupid-like drawings as headpieces and tailpieces for her magazine work since the 1890s when she worked as a staff artist for Puck magazine. While she was on the staff of Puck, the prolific artist produced over 700 illustrations for the magazine. Among them were the doodles that no doubt germinated into the cupid-like Kewpies.

Because of Rose's series of Kewpie books targeted at children -her last one was published in 1928- it should come as no surprise that young girls would want a Kewpie doll to play with. Forever the entrepreneur, O'Neill was not about to disappoint them.

Her marriage in 1902 to Puck literary editor, Harry Leon Wilson, a second marriage for O'Neill, ended in divorce in 1908 and Rose again retreated to the family homestead Bonniebrook, in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, as she did seven years earlier after the break-up of her first marriage to hometown beau Gray Latham. She never married again after her second divorce but did eventually leave Bonniebrook to return to New York City and to a career that would earn her $1.4 million during her lifetime

While attending art school in Paris, following the break-up of her marriage to Wilson, Rose became as productive as ever. She completed two pages of Kewpie adventures per month, illustrated the stories of other authors, and drew what she called "monsters" for a pastime. Despite these projects, O'Neill had not forgotten that children had been agitating for a Kewpie doll they could hold rather than the paper doll cut-outs and cartoon characters that appeared in print. She proceeded to model a Kewpie that was to be moulded into a doll and had made a good start when the mould fell over and her work collapsed into a formless mass. Apparently she was not inclined to refashion the doll and engaged the services of a student sculptor to do the work.

We know that O'Neill had made a set of complete working drawings of what she wanted the doll to look like but after a day's work the young student's work fell far short of Rose's expectations. The result apparently looked like a human child and had none of the Kewpie attributes that made O'Neill's elf-like imps unique. Rose resculpted the doll to give us the appearance we associate with Kewpies: an oversized rounded tummy, topknot of hair, a pair of small wings, sideways glancing eyes, and that definitive, closed watermelon smile.

The first Kewpie dolls came on the market in 1911 less than two years after they first appeared as illustrations in Ladies Home Journal despite the further difficulties O'Neill experienced in the production process at the facilities in Germany where the first Kewpies were manufactured. For some unknown reason the factory where the bisque dolls were cast did not use the moulds provided by O'Neill. And the results were disastrous. Although the Kewpie model was made available to George Borgfeldt a leading toy importer operating in Paris, who ostensibly sent the statue to the manufacturer in Germany, someone appears to have reworked the mould. The prototypes of the dolls from the reworked moulds proved unsatisfactory as, once more, the doll's face and body form looked more like that of a child and did not resemble the unique Kewpie look that O'Neil strove for.

To get the production process back on track, Rose travelled to Berlin where she provided the manufacturer with a dozen models of varied sizes. The first beautifully fashioned bisque dolls rolled off the German production lines in the various sizes modelled by O'Neill. Unfortunately, it was at a time when copyrights were not respected, or enforced as they are today, and within a year or so a number of companies in the Unites States began to manufacture Kewpie imitations in an array of sizes fashioned out of various materials. Many were made without proper authorization but little could be done to stop the illegal practice. The most popular of these "copies" was a celluloid doll dating from about 1914.

Although the original German-manufactured Kewpies were bisque, later models consist of wood pulp or chalk due to the shipping embargoes in effect during World War I. In the U.S., celluloid was the material of choice during those war years.

Kewpie aficionados specializing in antique dolls also pursue collateral Kewpie items such as Rose's Kewpie books, Kewpie illustrations, and the magazines where these antique dolls are pictured.

Bisque Kewpies, with their moulded and painted topknot hair, painted-on eyes, and watermelon mouth might also sport a pair of moulded, tiny blue wings. One of these dolls, about 12 inches in height in good condition, will easily fetch more than $1,000. Smaller ones realize substantially less. Price for a 5-inch doll may range upward of $200, with a 9-inch one commanding somewhere in excess of $350 depending on condition and how serious a seller is in trying to make a sale.

O'Neill was recognized as a serious artist in her lifetime and her work was exhibited in the leading art galleries of New York and Paris. The commercial value of her creations was undoubtedly recognized early on as Scootles, one of her subsequent Kewpie-related doll creations, was copyrighted in 1928. Soft Kewpies made of silk began to appear even earlier Ð about 1925.

In recognition of O'Neill's artistic accomplishments, the United States Postal Service honoured her on two separate occasions: in 1997 and again in 2001. The 1997 postal issue depicts "Scootles" on a 32-cent commemorative stamp; the 2001 stamp release pictures a Kewpie Doll with Doodle Dog issued as part of a 20-stamp souvenir sheet honouring American illustrators. Included in the American Illustrators 34-cent stamp sheet are the works of such household names as Frederic Remington and Norman Rockwell. Expertly crafted in vivid colours with an illustrated header, the stamp pane should prove equally popular with collectors of poster art and stamp collectors alike.

"Scootles," the Baby Tourist, was created in 1923 as a realistic looking girl doll. Although not a Kewpie doll per se, Scootles nevertheless plays an important role in the Kewpie world: she is a visitor to Kewpieville in O'Neill's Kewpie story books for children and figures prominently in these stories. O'Neill's Kewpie-related story books continued to be written during and after her lifetime by other writers. For some of these books, O'Neill provided her own illustrations. For example, the most current Kewpie book, entitled Collecting Rose O'Neill's Kewpies by David O'Neill and Janet O'Neill Sullivan, great nephew and great niece of Rose, is a 160-page recent release covering many aspects of the fascinating life and work of one of America's foremost illustrators.

O'Neill made one more attempt at resurrecting her creative magic in 1940 with the launch of Ho Ho, a squat little laughing Buddha. The doll made of plaster of paris exists in three sizes. Unfortunately, the timing was wrong with Japan bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941 and sales for the Buddha-like doll never materialized.

Kewpie dolls, however, remained popular and many companies, some authorized, others unauthorized, continued to manufacture them as well as numerous Kewpie related items such as bracelets, earrings, inkwells, perfume bottles, salt and pepper shakers, and a variety of smoking accessories. Also available are products featuring Kewpie depictions on handbags and purses, billfolds, cups, key chains, lunch sets, boxes of various sorts, pens and pencils, trays, towels, postcards, stationery, and similar items.

For collectors not inclined to spend a near king's ransom for the early bisque Kewpies, lower priced reproductions are on the market. Although O'Neill stopped writing books about her beloved Kewpies with the onset of the First World War but by then more than 5 million dolls had been sold worldwide. In 1925 she reintroduced them but the beautiful bisque creations of the pre-war years, by some of Germany's top doll manufacturers such as the world famous J. D. Kestner Company, did not immediately regain their pre-World War I popularity. About five years later though, around 1930, they did regain their earlier popularity but as inexpensive giveaway prizes at fairs and carnivals.

Bisque Kewpies have today become collectible classics with prices to match. Because of their scarcity, reproductions have found a niche market and as long as collectors are aware of what they are buying there is nothing wrong with owning and enjoying these kinds of items. The problem arises when individuals purchase a reproduction under the mistaken impression that it is an original. Many reproductions are of excellent quality and legitimately produced. Typical examples are the so-called "action Kewpies." They are reasonably priced and a joy to own. Ideally, all reproductions should be signed, and preferably dated, by the artist to eliminate any suggestion of skulduggery.

It is the reproductions sold as originals that cause the problem. A copyright sign -that small c in a circle that we see stamped on many products- is no guarantee that the doll is an original Kewpie. It merely means that the company producing the doll has been authorized to reproduce these items whereas unauthorized companies may not replicate them let alone stamp them with the copyright c symbol. The copyright inscription is no guarantee that it is an original antique Kewpie.

Of equally great danger are the repaired antique Kewpies sold as damage free or "in perfect condition." Some are so cleverly mended that only experts, with years of experience are able to identify them. One trick that unscrupulous individuals employ is to paint the repaired doll a shade of brown or black and try to pass it off as a genuine antique "Hottentot" Kewpie. Again, only years of experience handling Kewpies can guarantee that one will be not be fooled by a clever fake. Testing the doll with a solvent or paint remover, one way to see if the doll received a recent coat of paint, is usually not an option for a prospective buyer at a doll or antique show. Caveat emptor Ðlet the buyer beware- is the byword before making a major purchase. It is advice that collectors ignore at their own peril. Collecting Kewpie dolls, whether antique or expertly crafted reproductions, Kewpie books, magazine articles, pictures, posters, or other Kewpie memorabilia, is a rewarding hobby that for many will bring back warm memories of bygone days. For newcomers to the world of Kewpies, they hold the promise of a lifetime of enjoyable collecting.

Kewpies were created to bring a little more joy to the world and they did that in their bumbling, self-effacing way. As Rose O'Neill remarked, ever so succinctly, "Cupid gets himself into trouble. The Kewpies get themselves out, always searching out ways to make the world better and funnier."

Tony Shaman is a freelance writer and editor of The Canadian Philatelist, the official journal of The Royal Philatelic Society of Canada. He can be contacted at