In 1907, Rose O’Neill, already a successful magazine illustrator in her early 30s, left the East Coast and retreated to her family’s beautiful but rustic home in the Ozark mountains to recover from her second divorce. To her, their wooded Missouri homestead—which she dubbed Bonniebrook, thanks to the creek running through it—was a magical, restorative place.
Normally a bubbly person, O’Neill was feeling particularly melancholy and introspective when, in 1909, a “Ladies Home Journal” editor asked her to come up with Cupid-like character illustrations to accompany some verse. O’Neill said that she spent so much time pondering these creatures, which became the Kewpies, they appeared to her in a dream. As she explained in a 1910 “Woman’s Home Companion” interview, "They were all over my room, on my bed, and perched on my hand. I awoke seeing them everywhere. Because they felt cold, I knew that they were elves."
In fact, O’Neill’s Kewpie illustrations, which first appeared in “Ladies Home Journal” in December 1909, had been percolating in her head for a long time. As a teenager in Omaha,...
O’Neill’s Kewpies, which she named for “little Cupid, spelling it with a K because it seemed funnier,” were an instant hit, and she drew them for “Woman’s Home Companion” and “Good Housekeeping,” as well as other magazines and advertisers for more than 25 years. Because O’Neill was a savvy business woman, the Kewpies made her a millionaire, and allowed her to expand Bonniebrook into a sprawling, modern mansion with electricity and plumbing.
Her mischievous baby-like elves, which were children’s guardian angels in her stories (specifically, they protected the human girl Dottie Darling), were characterized by their big eyes in shy, sideways glancing expressions, a single topknot of blond hair, splayed “starfish” hands, and an exaggerated potbelly. O’Neill explained that Cupid, "gets himself into trouble. The Kewpies get themselves out, always searching out ways to make the world better and funnier."
In 1912, she created Kewpie Kutouts, the first two-sided paper dolls, for “Woman’s Home Companion.” That same year, George Borgfeldt & Company of New York—a distributor of dolls, toys, and novelty items—approached O’Neill about developing a line of Kewpie figurines and dolls. The company could help her keep up with the overwhelming demand for Kewpie merchandise.
Borgfeldt posted an advertisement at the Pratt Institute’s fine arts college in Brooklyn, and with the help of Borgfeldt’s Fred Kolb, O’Neill selected the work of a 17-year-old artist Joseph Kallus. With the approval of O’Neill, Kallus created the first models and molds of Kewpie novelty items, which were then mass-produced cheaply in Germany in high-fired bisque by the likes of J.D. Kestner, Gebruder Voight, and Herman Voigt. Karl Standfuss produced Kewpies in celluloid, while Margarete Steiff made them out of cloth. The Kestner dolls are the most well-known of these.
After that the initial O’Neill-approved dolls were issued, Borgfeldt was left to decide what sort of Kewpie figurine would sell, and then Kallus would be commissioned to make a clay model that was subsequently cast as a mold. But German doll production halted in the mid-1910s due to World War I, and did not resume until the 1920s. To deal with this blow, Kallus founded his own Rex Doll Company in 1916 to produce composition Kewpie dolls and figurines, under license from Borgfeldt. These toys were distributed by Tip Top Toy Co., which also sold them as carnival prizes. Under Rex, Kallus also copyrighted the first of his own doll designs, a character doll named Baby Bundie.
The now-wealthy O’Neill, who had been living with her sister, Callista, in Europe, returned to New York City during the war. Still drawing and writing poems about Kewpies, she took to wearing flowing, filmy dresses inspired by ancient Greek sculptures, and invited her favorite intellectuals and artists to congregate at her Washington Square apartment. Many believe the popular song of the day, “Rose of Washington Square,” was written about her.
In 1919, Kallus became the president of Mutual Doll Company, which produced Kewpies, Baby Bundies, and others until Kallus resigned in 1921. A year later he established Cameo Doll Company, which continued to make Kewpies for Borgfeldt, as composition dolls with segmented wood joints. Cameo, which relocated to Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1933, also produced Kallus designs like Baby Bo Kaye and Little Annie Rooney, based on a Jack Collins comic strip.
O’Neill created another line of characters called Scootles in 1925, and these ended up being more popular in doll form than they were in her illustrations. In 1937, at age 63, she returned to the Bonniebrook estate. Still coming up with ideas, she introduced a new character, Ho-Ho, a little laughing Buddha in 1940. When it was mass-produced as a doll by Cameo, it caused an outcry from Buddhists at a time when tensions between Japan and America were at a peak, right before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Rose O’Neill passed away in 1944, and her sister died shortly after her in 1946. They were both buried on the family plot at Bonniebrook, and in 1947, the whole house burned to the ground. The rights to produce Kewpies, Scootles, and Ho-Hos were granted to Kallus and his Cameo Doll Company by O’Neill’s nephew, John Hugh O’Neil. At Cameo, Kallus also created dolls for Disney, including Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Howdy Doody, Superman, Felix the Cat, Bonzo (a dog), and Pinocchio.
Kallus was extremely protective of O’Neill’s concepts, and became more testy as he got older and started negotiating with other toy companies. He approached American Character Doll Company for a licensing agreement in 1960, only to turn them off with his abrasive behavior.
In 1969, Kallus reached an agreement with Strombecker Corporation of Chicago, and Cameo delivered the Kewpie molds to the company. Strombecker also convinced Kallus to allow Hallmark Cards Incorporated to produce greeting cards using Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie illustrations. However, the agreement between Strombecker and Cameo was terminated in 1973, when Kallus raised a stink about wanting to approve every single doll model.
In 1972, both Knickerbocker Toy Company in the United States and Kutsuwa Company, Ltd., of Osawa, Japan, were granted licenses to produce merchandise with any Cameo characters. After the doll-making deal with Strombecker fell through, Kallus struck a deal with Milton Bradley, which made Kewpie vinyl dolls under its Amsco brand. By 1976, Kallus had a falling out with Milton Bradley over royalties and the Kewpies boxes, which were not up to his specifications.
That same year, Kallus reported that his Brooklyn home had been burglarized, and many of his original Kewpie molds and designs were missing. Kallus tried to sign another contract with Knickerbocker in 1980, but they refused. At that point, all sorts of seedier companies in the United States and overseas were knocking off Kewpie imagery for postcards, dolls, and the like.
But in 1982, 89-year-old Kallus met with Nancy Villaseñor, president of Jesco, and felt he could trust her to maintain Rose O’Neill’s original vision of quality. Shortly after reaching an agreement with Villaseñor and Jim Skahill of Jesco, Kallus was killed in a car accident.
Jesco issued its first Kewpie dolls in 1982, a 27-inch remake of the 1966 Kewpie, a 16-inch “Yesterday’s Kewpie” based on a 1961 model, and a 12-inch “Kewpie Goes …” series with theme costumes designed by Shirley Pepys. The Jesco dolls are slightly smaller than the originals, which is because the older dolls were made with stock parts, while Jesco was committed to using the original molds, as they had promised Kallus.
For collectors, the earliest German-made bisque dolls are the most interesting. These were made in various sizes from 2-inch to 13-inch, with arms jointed at the shoulder. They were marked by a heart-shaped paper label that read “Kewpie” and “Germany,” and both feet have the “O’Neill” signature stamped into them. The most common of these are simple Kewpies in standing positions, while the rare ones depict the Kewpie interacting with an animal or holding an object, like a vase.
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