KEWPIESOriginal medium: Magazine Illustration
Appearing in: Ladies' Home Journal
First Appeared: 1909
Creator: Rose O'Neill
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carnival game — or at least, in old movies that's what it is. But what's a Kewpie, and why would anyone make a doll of it?
A Kewpie is a small, usually naked, genderless creature that looks like a cherubic baby with very tiny, Cupid-like wings perched high on its shoulders. It has a cute little tuft of hair partially obscuring each ear, and another cute little tuft sticking up from the top of its head. It has no personal name, and very strongly resembles the numberless hordes of other Kewpies that spewed from the prolific pen of cartoonist Rose Cecil O'Neill, for several decades during the first half of the 20th century.
The Kewpies appeared in Christmas cards, Sunday comics, children's books, advertisements, and many other venues. Where they first appeared is Ladies' Home Journal, where, starting in its December, 1909 issue, O'Neill wrote and profusely illustrated little stories in verse form, running between one and three pages, and designed to be read aloud to very young children. Later, Kewpie stories started appearing in Woman's Home Companion, Good Housekeeping and other women's magazines. From there, like Palmer Cox's Brownies, which also started as illustrated magazine stories written in verse, they became a national phenomenon, even to the point of schools adopting them as mascots — in fact, to this very day, the sports teams of David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo., are called "The Kewpies". In terms of instant popularity and universal appeal, Kewpies have been compared to Mickey Mouse — to the Mouse's detriment.
Years later, to reporters, O'Neill claimed the Kewpies came to her in a dream. In it, dozens flitted charmingly about, chirping the word "kewpie" in a baby-like coo, tho unlike human babies, they were cool to the touch. When she asked if the word was short for "Cupids", they nodded their adorable little heads.
It's possible at least part of this story consists of romantic embellishment — but maybe not, as O'Neill was known for sometimes going overboard on child-like cuteness. In fact, her second husband cited her incessant baby talk as one of the reasons they broke up (tho to be fair, she cited his taciturn moodiness). What is known is that Kewpie-like beings began turning up in O'Neill's story illustrations during the 19-aughts, and that after seeing them for a while, Ladies' Home Journal editor Edward Bok suggested she make stories with them as the stars. She did, and the public liked them. A lot.
The first kewpie dolls appeared in 1912, designed by sculptor Joseph Kallus and manufactured in five different sizes by Geo. Borgfeldt & Co. In the following years, they were made of porcelain, wood, rubber, brass and many other substances, and used for paperweights, prizes, hood ornaments, wedding cake figures, advertising premiums, and oh yes, toys.
O'Neill authored several Kewpie books, starting in 1913 with The Kewpies & Dottie Darling (co-starring another O'Neill magazine character). In 1917, she launched a Sunday page about Kewpies, in the same rhyme-plus-picture format as her magazine stories, accompanied by a daily Kewpie panel, tho she kept the feature going only a year. All through the 19-teens and early '20s, she illustrated advertisements for Jell-O, with Kewpies in them. In 1919, New York's Amsterdam Theatre put on a full-scale stage musical about Kewpies. Vaudeville skits about them abounded. The magazine stories continued through the 1920s and into the '30s. O'Neill did a second Sunday page about them from 1935-37, this one in more conventional comic strip form — and a supporting character from it, a toddler named Scootles, was also made into a doll.
O'Neill died in 1944, after having made (and spent) an estimated $1.4 million in Kewpie money. Public interest in Kewpies had waned by then, but was still strong enough to prompt Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) to try publishing a Kewpies comic book in 1949. It lasted only one issue, however. In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service put Kewpies on a stamp, as part of a series of 20 commemoratives honoring American illustrators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, O'Neill was in company with Howard Pyle, James Montgomery Flagg, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and similar luminaries. As recently as 1997, they were the subject of an obscure and short-lived Saturday morning cartoon produced by Sachs Family Entertainment.
Tho once ubiquitous, the Kewpies are now long gone from the public consciousness — almost. Since 1967, The International Rose O'Neill Club, which has branches in many American cities, has held an annual convention which it calls The Kewpiesta, where a growing number of enthusiasts, re-discovering her work, can get together to swap info and artifacts — some of the latter running into sizable hunks of change — concerning the most famous work of one of America's pioneering female cartoonists.