Kewpie Dolls (1910’s)
The history of dolls
Children have played with dolls since the dawn of civilization. A fragment of an alabaster doll with movable arms was found that dated from the Babylonian period. Archeologists have found dolls in Egyptian tombs which date to as early as 2000 BC. Dolls have been found in the graves of Greek and Roman children. One of the earliest records of a doll “fad” dates to 1910 when Kewpie Dolls were all the rage.
Kewpie Dolls (sometimes spelled Cupie Doll), which exploded in popularity during the 1910’s, are based on the “Kewpie” illustrations by Rose O’Neill that first appeared in the Christmas 1909 edition of Ladies Home Journal magazine. Born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in 1874 to William Patrick O’Neill and Alice Asenath O’Neill, Rose O’Neill was an author, artist, illustrator, sculptor, and business woman.
As a child Rose loved to draw, and her father would leave specially sharpened pencils and blank paper around the house for her. She honed her drawing skills by copying pictures from the many volumes in her father’s library. At the age of 14 she entered a drawing contest sponsored by Omaha World Harold. Suspicious of the entry, the editors asked Rose to come to the office to demonstrate her drawing skills in person. She won a $5 gold piece for her winning entry she titled “Temptation Leading Down into an Abyss”. At the age of 16, she moved to New York City to pursue her passion and after selling a portfolio of 60 drawings within three months, she became the highest paid female illustrator in the United States. Her Kewpie cartoon illustrations in the Ladies Home Journal became instant hits with the public.
The invention of Kewpies
When asked how she came to invent Kewpies, Rose recalled, “The idea grew from a baby brother when I was a little girl. I made drawings of him while I played with him. All his little looks and gestures came out later in the Kewpie.” She further expanded:
“In illustrating love stories I had a way of making decorative head and tail pieces with Cupids. Edward Bok of the Ladies’ Home Journal cut out a number of these and sent them to me. He asked me if I could make a series of the little creatures and said that he would find someone to make accompanying verses. I replied that I would make the verses up myself and wrote him an illustrated letter in which I created the character of the Kewpie. I invented the name for little Cupid, spelling it with a K because it seemed funnier. I thought about the Kewpies so much that I had a dream about them where they were all doing acrobatic pranks on the coverlet of my bed.”
Kewpies first appeared in the 1909 Christmas issue of The Ladies Home Journal and appeared in other magazines including Woman’s Home Companion and Good Housekeeping. In a 1912 edition of Woman’s Home Companion, paper doll cutouts of Kewpies were included. These were so popular that Rose, ever the business woman, decided to expand on the idea and create a three-dimensional version of the popular character.
Kewpie dolls are created
In 1913, the patent for Kewpie dolls was registered. The dolls were manufactured by the J.D. Kestner Company in Ohrduf, a small town in Germany famous for its expert toy manufacturers. The dolls, made from celluloid and bisque, came in nine different sizes including a smaller low cost version, and were a huge hit with adults and children. The popularity of the Kewpie Doll quickly spread throughout the United States and into Europe. In 1913, the demand was so great, it took twenty one factories to produce enough dolls to keep up with the demand for them. At the same time that German companies were producing bisque and celluloid Kewpies, Japanese companies were producing knock-off versions of the doll without official licenses. Most of the early Kewpie dolls are unmarked or only marked with “O’Neill” while some versions had a red paper heart symbol or were only marked with “Made in Germany”.
Rose expanded the Kewpie Doll franchise allowing licensed Kewpies to appear in advertisements, coloring books, cups, plates, postcards, talcum powder boxes, salt and pepper shakers, and even on household doorknobs. The Kewpie craze continued well into the late 1920’s. The time capsule at the 1939 New York World’s Fair contained a Kewpie doll.