June 25, 2015

It Happened on June 25th

Rose Cecil O'Neill Born, 1874

Rose Cecil O'Neill, circa 1907
She called them Kewpie Dolls, after Cupid, the Roman god of erotic love. They made their first appearance in 1909, as illustrations in the Ladies' Home Journal. After that, it wasn't long before they were manufactured as dolls, first in bisque, and later in celluloid. The hard plastic ones didn't come along until 1949.

Rose O'Neill was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on June 25, 1874. She was the second of eight children born to William and Alice O'Neill. Fortunately for Rose, she loved taking care of the younger children.

She also loved to draw, and her father encouraged her, providing her with plenty of art materials and not worrying about her getting educated in anything other than the arts. He also had romantic ideas about country life, and when Rose was three, he moved the family out of their comfortable middle-class existence to a sod house in Nebraska. He had an idea that the family could lead an idyllic country life, getting by on nothing but love and poetry.

In real life, this worked out to his traveling to the neighboring towns and attempting to sell books -- which the townspeople didn't need and weren't interested in. Rose's mother, "Meemie", tried to adapt to the country life too, but she had never cooked, sewn, or planted anything in her life. Pretty soon the family moved on to Omaha.

At the age of 14, Rose entered an art contest and won first prize. The judges were a little suspicious about the originality of her work, however, deeming it a pretty sophisticated topic for a 14-year-old -- Temptation Leading Down into an Abyss. They had her come in and demonstrate her talent before they would allow her to accept her prize, a five-dollar gold piece.

O'Neill illustration from Puck magazine, 1904.
"Ethel: He acts this way. He gazes at me tenderly, is buoyant
when I am near him, pines when I neglect him. Now, what
does that signify?  Her mother: That he's a mighty good actor,
Within a few years, Rose was selling her work for publications in Chicago and Denver. She was well on her way to her life's ambition, becoming a full-time illustrator.

When Rose was 18, her mother sold the family cow so that Rose could visit New York to find work. She found housing with the Sisters of St. Regis, who also accompanied her on sales calls. Rose was definitely successful, selling work to Colliers, Life, Harpers, and other well-known publications.

After about a year, Rose returned to her family, who had moved again, this time to a homestead in the Ozarks. She fell in love with the place immediately, and named it Bonniebrook.

When Rose finally returned to New York, she married her first husband, Gray Latham. Gray Latham made a habit of spending Rose's money just as soon as she made it, which distressed her greatly. She needed that money to send home to the family, who was depending on her as their main source of support. After five years they divorced, and Rose returned to Bonniebrook.

The Kewpies, like Rose, were suffragettes.
© chicks57/Wikimedia Commons
Back at Bonniebrook, Rose began receiving mysterious gifts and letters from an admirer. It turned out that the admirer was Harry Leon Wilson, a literary editor that she had worked with at Puck magazine. They wed in 1902, and both husband and wife spent several years writing, Rose producing her first (illustrated) novel, The Loves of Edwyn. The couple had multiple homes by this time -- in Bonniebrook, Cos Cob, Connecticut, Paris, and the Isle of Capri.

Rose's second marriage didn't go so well either. Harry became moody and easily irked by Rose's mannerisms, especially her penchant for speaking to him in baby talk. They also divorced, although they remained friendly throughout their lives.

1909 was a banner year for Rose O'Neill, as it was the year the Kewpies first appeared in the Christmas issue of the Ladies' Home Journal. Later, they would also appear in Good Housekeeping and the Woman's Home Companion, and would continue being published for the next 25 years. The Woman's Home Companion also featured the Kewpies as paper dolls, called Kewpie Kutouts. They were designed to have both a front and a back -- the first paper dolls ever designed this way.

Civil War Kewpies
© Colin McMillan / Wikimedia Commons
A whole chain of Kewpie merchandise became available starting in 1913 that would continue for decades. They were produced in Germany, in nine different sizes. Demand was so great that twenty-one factories were set up to produce the dolls. Rose O'Neill became a very wealthy woman.

Rose added an apartment in Greenwich Village and an estate in Westport, Connecticut to her collection of homes. Now, besides supporting her family, she was able to provide support for young artists that she took under her wing.

Rose O'Neill was a successful and sought-after artist until the 1930's, when photography began replacing illustrations in magazines. The Kewpie Doll business fell off a bit too, although it has never -- even today -- dried up entirely. Rose began to find her obligations too much for her, and began selling off some of her properties. She tried to replicate her Kewpie Doll success with a Buddha-like character called "Little Ho Ho," but he never caught on.

Rose O'Neill died in 1944 at the age of 69. She had created nearly 5500 drawings in her lifetime, in addition to her work as an oil and watercolor painter, sculptress, businesswoman, suffragette, poet, and novelist.

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