During the early 20th century, a popular cartoon launched a brand of cutesy, cherubic bisque dolls that took the market by storm. These sugary Kewpie dolls were created by prominent female cartoonist Rose O’Neill, who was not only the first published female cartoonist in the United States but was also the highest paid female illustrator in the world for a time.
Rose Cecil O’Neill was born on June 25, 1874 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. When she was three years old, O’Neill and her five siblings relocated to rural Nebraska with their parents William Patrick and Alice Asenath “Meemie” Smith. At an early age, O’Neill expressed an interest in the arts, especially drawing, painting, and sculpting. By 13, she had entered and won a drawing competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald for her piece “Temptation Leading to an Abyss.” Shortly thereafter, O'Neill began providing illustrations for Excelsior and The Great Divide as well as other local Omaha periodicals.
To help further her talents and burgeoning career, O’Neill moved to New York to live with the Sisters of St. Regis. The nuns would accompany O’Neill on trips to various publishers as she sold her drawings. O’Neill’s illustrations were featured in a September 19, 1896, issue of True magazine, making her the first published American woman cartoonist. She went on to join the staff of American humor magazine, Puck, where she was the only female on staff. In 1909, O’Neill started drawing advertisements for Jell-O, while also contributing to magazines such as Harper’s, Life, and Ladies’ Home Journal. It was for the latter publication that O’Neill created the popular Kewpie cartoons.
These cherub-faced characters were described by O’Neill as “a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time.” Further publications of the Kewpie comics in Woman’s Home Companion and Good Housekeeping saw the cartoon rapidly skyrocket in popularity. Initially, O’Neill drew paper dolls of the characters, called Kewpie Kutouts, before the characters were produced as bisque dolls by a German company. Later versions of the dolls were produced, making them among the first mass-marketed toys in the United States.
They were paperweights, hood ornaments, wedding cake figures, ad premiums, carnival dolls, and more. Kewpies were featured in two Sunday comic strips, one that began in 1917, followed by a two-year revival in 1935. In 1997, Kewpies were also featured in a very short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. At the height of her success, O’Neill had amassed a fortune of $1.4 million, making her the highest-paid female illustrator in the world – at that time. Throughout her life, O’Neill was also an ardent women's rights advocate and well known in New York City's artistic circles.
In her later career, O’Neill delved into sculpting and had several exhibitions of sculptures and paintings in both the United States and Paris. While in Paris, O’Neill was elected to the Société Coloniale des Artistes Français and had exhibitions of her sculptures at the Galerie Devambez. O’Neill also wrote several novels and books of poetry, but nothing ever quite matched the insane popularity of her Kewpies.
Throughout her life, Rose Cecil O’Neill broke glass ceilings in the workplace and was an active figure of the women’s suffrage movement in her personal life, making her a true superstar and an excellent profile for Women’s History Month.