Kewpie Dolls - a century of adorable, chubby dolls from the heart of Rose O'Neill.
For me, the story of Kewpie dolls is a bittersweet one. Kewpie's big roly eyes
and chubby infant body have charmed women and children for generations, but creator
Rose O'Neill's history is a somewhat sad one. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
on June 25, 1874, Rose grew up in an environment where creativity and artistic
talents were encouraged by her parents. At the age of 14, she entered a drawing
in a contest being run by the Omaha World Herald and won first place.
A few years later, Rose moved to New York to reside with the Sisters
of Saint Regis. She was hired by the popular magazine, Puck, and before
she reached her 20th birthday, Rose O'Neill had become America's highest
paid female illustrator. At this point in her life, she married for
the first time and the union was an extremely unhappy one. Her husband
repeatedly absconded with Rose's earnings and spent them on himself
rather than allowing her to use the money to support them as well as
her family. The marriage ended in divorce.
This was followed by a second
marriage to one of Puck Magazine's editors - a man with an unpleasant
disposition. Again, the relationship ended in divorce and Rose went back
to live with her parents in 1907.
During what must have been a very sad period in her life, Kewpie was born.
The legend goes that while Rose was taking an afternoon nap, she dreamed that
tiny cupids visited her, and were, in fact, bouncing around all over her
blankets. She awoke and dashed to her drawing board and the illustrations
that resulted were the very first Kewpies.
In 1909, the first Kewpie illustrations appeared in Ladies' Home Journal
Magazine - a favorite of Edwardian-age women. The fat, roly-poly babies were
meant to depict the alter-ego of the Roman myth of cupid. According to O'Neill,
cupid is guilty of getting people into trouble. Kewpie, by contrast, exists
to help people get out of trouble! From a modern psychological viewpoint, one
can certainly conjecture that Rose O'Neill had good reason to long for a
friendly little being with the power to heal a troubled heart.
The tremendous popularity of the first Kewpie illustrations led to a series
of paper dolls called Kewpie Kut Outs, which were double-sided and were
accompanied by little stories about Kewpie. Comic strip-style Kewpie tales
followed on the heels of the paper dolls, and soon, O'Neill found herself
deluged with letters from little children pleading for a Kewpie they could
hold in their hands. O'Neill became determined to make her fans' dreams come
The First Authentic Kewpie Dolls
In 1911, Rose O'Neill began her search for a sculptor who would have the
talent to turn her illustrations into a doll, and a young art student from the
Pratt Art Institute named Joseph Kallus was chosen for the job. Kallus sculpted
the very first Kewpie Doll model in bisque, soon followed by celluloid dolls,
and O'Neill took a voyage to Germany to contract with a doll manufacturer to
begin producing Kewpie Dolls for the public.
Rose O'Neill was a strong proponent of women's suffrage, the simple ideals
of the Arts and Crafts era, and a tremendous fan of the arts. She also had
a tender heart for the poor, and insisted that the doll factory make the tiny
Kewpie dolls as detailed and high-quality as the larger, more expensive ones.
She wanted the dolls that poor children would receive to be as charming as
the dolls of the rich.
The illustration to the right shows an original celluloid Kewpie Doll.
Celluloid was an easily molded material created of nitrocellulose, camphor, and
dyes, first invented in 1856. It was eventually to be replaced by plastic and
vinyl, but celluloid Kewpie Dolls are extremely desirable items at auction
and this image shows the early charms of chubby little Kewpie.
Public response to the first Kewpie Dolls was overwhelming, and, almost overnight,
Rose O'Neill had become a millionaire and a world-famous figure. The original
Kewpie Dolls were made in an upright posture with hands at the sides. In
addition to the bisque and celluloid dolls, Kewpies were made of ceramic. The
example shown at left is an excellent one of a ceramic Kewpie. It stands five
inches tall and features tiny blue wings. Kewpie collectors know that these
dolls can either be winged or wingless, and the variety of poses and materials
that emerged as the decades passed is one of the things that makes Kewpie
collecting such a pleasure.
For three decades, Kewpies were among America's most popular dolls, and
Rose O'Neill enjoyed a privileged life at home and abroad. Sadly, fortune was
only to shine on her for this brief span of her life. The popularity of Kewpies
began to wane in the 1930's, and in the midst of the terrible years of the
Great American Depression, Rose O'Neill lost her fortune. In addition to the
decline in the demand for Kewpies, the advent of photography replaced the
need for illustrative work for print publications, and O'Neill's once-extravagant
life became a very humble one. She spent the final years of her life working
as a lecturer at artists' workshops and continuing to promote women's rights.
Rose O'Neill died at her home in April of 1944.
Kewpie in the Mid to Late 20th Century
Joseph Kallus, meanwhile, was enjoying a more steady measure of success.
He had founded the Cameo Doll Company in 1925, and had created such dolls as
Scootles, Miss Peep, and Pinocchio. Upon the death of his old friend, Rose O'Neill,
Kallus was the recipient of total merchandising rights for Kewpie. In addition
to the many dolls created in the Kewpie line, a wealth of other Kewpie items
were manufactured. Kewpie dishes, statues, perfume dispensers, kitchen items,
food packaging, postcards, and doll patterns are among some of the many Kewpie
collectibles that continue to appear at auction today. I was thrilled to come
across this fabulous example of a cloth Kewpie Doll (shown at right) at auction.
It has been skillfully embroidered and must have been a much-loved doll, but
appears to be in remarkably good condition, though it is estimated to date back
to the 1930's or 1940's.
Joseph Kallus retired from the doll making industry in 1969, and at this
point, Strombecker received the rights to purchase Kewpie. Plastic and rubber
Kewpies from this period are most common. The rights then passed onto the
To the left, you will see an excellent example of the drugstore variety Kewpie
you may recall seeing in the 1970's and 80's. This vinyl Kewpie with its
moveable limbs and head was a common baby gift, and my family owned two of them,
amusingly named Kew-Boo and Boo-Que. These names were a play on words of what
my littlest sister called these two dolls: Boo Boo and Kewpie. Many of the
Kewpie Dolls from this time period have an orange tint to the soft vinyl they
are made of. To me, the most adorable feature of Kewpies has always been their
outstretched hands that resemble tiny little starfish. Kewpies from this
period are cute, but obviously less valuable than vintage dolls.
The most recent big step in the century-long history of Kewpie Dolls occurred
in 1983, when the Jesco Toy Company obtained the rights to begin manufacturing
high-quality, limited edition and collectible Kewpie Dolls. It is an interesting
point in the story that Jesco President, Nancy Villasenor, went to New York to
consult with 89-year old Joseph Kallus to explain her company's plan for the
new Kewpie. Kallus approved, and I like to think that Rose O'Neill would have,
too. I know she would be glad to think that Kewpie Dolls had once again become
one of America's best-loved dolls.
The photo shown above depicts three of the Jesco Company's most recent
Kewpie Dolls from the beginning of the new century. Collectors can see what
care has been taken to capture the original enchanting qualities of the first
Kewpie Dolls, and their detailed costumes are a delight to explore. The Jesco
Company continues to own the rights as the official producer of Kewpie Dolls.
Identifying and Valuing Kewpie Dolls
I have been unable to obtain an exact number that correctly represents just how
many varieties of Kewpie Dolls have been manufactured since their first appearance
in 1913. It is, perhaps, this profusion of dolls that often leads to confusion
at auction where I have seen non-Kewpies being listed as Kewpie Dolls. In
addition to the Cameo Company's high-quality dolls, a large number of inexpensive
dolls were produced to be given as door and carnival prizes in the first half
of the 20th century. The variety is truly staggering, but here are some basics
to help you when identifying your doll as a Kewpie:
- Kewpies bearing the foot mark of O'Neill plus a red and gold
paper heart on the body are generally accepted as totally authentic.
- Kewpies may have wings, but not all of them do.
- Cameo, Jesco, Kruger, King, Milton-Bradley and Strombecker have
all produced Kewpies at various points in history.
- Kewpies have been made of bisque, celluloid, plastic, rubber,
ceramic, vinyl, porcelain, and china.
- The rolling eyes, fat stomach, and pointed hair are good indicators
of a Kewpie.
- Rarity and condition are major factors in auction value.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article on the story of Kewpie,
the trials and tribulations in the life of Kewpie's creator are somewhat sad
to reflect upon. However, there is also a lesson in the biography of Rose O'Neill
that I believe we can draw inspiration from as doll lovers. If Kewpie could
come out of the stirrings of a broken heart to bring happiness to others,
surely all of us can strive to bring laughter and fun into the lives of others,
despite whatever troubles we may know. Kewpie is a symbol of a resilient heart
and a spirit of genuine joy.