I used to have a pretty good pitching arm back in my teenage years. I could generally hit my mark with a baseball almost anytime I wanted. One evening while strolling through a carnival, someone enticed me to knock down the three wooden milk bottles in one throw and win a prize – piece of cake. When the “carnie” handed me my prize it was a little bare-naked Kewpie Doll. The other guys I was with got a big kick out of that and started ribbing me about my Kewpie Doll, so I handed it to the first cute girl that walked by. After all, I had to protect my manhood. I couldn’t keep carrying that thing, and both of my sisters already had a couple of Kewpie Dolls at home. I guess Kewpies have pretty much been around forever.
When I related that story recently to my friend Jeanette Melton (who had a Kewpie in her extensive doll collection), she enlightened me somewhat on the little doll’s history.
While the Kewpie Doll was the creation of Rose O’Neil, she also wore many other hats during her lifetime. She was a well-known illustrator, sculptor, a designer, an artist, a novelist, a poet, and a singer. Rose illustrated for several popular magazines of her day, such as Harper’s Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan. She was essentially a comic herself who liked all gifted and funny people. She embraced absurdity and conventionality.
In 1909, when Rose was 35 years old, she began drawing cupid-like babies in the Ladies Home Journal. She created a make-believe world called “Kewpieville," and filled it with Kewpie characters and their silly adventures. The chubby little elves and their bubbling good nature simply won human hearts everywhere and was a smash hit with both children and adults in this country and around the world. The Kewpies were even used in advertising for Jell-O and Oxydol Detergent.
In a series of newspaper interviews, Rose described the Kewpies as appearing in a dream tumbling and playing about her drawing board and stated that she believed the Kewpies were derived from Irish fairies. Kewpie’s turnip top hairdo was modeled after her little brother’s hair. Kewpie is short for Cupid. The two are not in the same business though; Cupid is always getting people in trouble by shooting arrows, causing people to fall in love. Kewpies are just cute little, fun loving critters that get themselves in and out of trouble.
By March of 1913, Rose started producing a doll based on the Kewpie. The Kewpie Doll was an instant success and soon outpaced all of the other dolls of the time in sales, and even outsold the popular Teddy Bear and Pandas. In due time, she even opened a Kewpie Doll store in New York City where she lived. There was also a dizzying array of china, tableware, picture frames, clocks, greeting cards, soaps, wallpaper and vases with Kewpies on them.
Rose’s folks lived in the Missouri Ozarks near Branson and she spent extended time back there unwinding and relaxing. She appreciated the language and lore of the Ozark Hill People and the Ozark natives loved Rose in return, even though they found her somewhat different, being from New York and all. She eventually moved to the Ozarks and named her place “Bonnie Brook.” Once a year, her adopted hometown of Branson holds a “Kewpiesta Festival,"which is also the annual meeting of the International Rose O’Neil Society. Rose O’Neil clubs exist in all 50 states and abroad, and they all get together at Branson. Bonnie Brook is located about nine miles north of Branson just off U.S. 65 on Rose O’Neil Road.
Reference: “Story Time – Kewpie Dolls, Peanuts, and Murder” by Jeanette Melton.
• Ted W. Stillwell, along with doll historian and collector, Jeanette Melton, will present a history on the doll at noon today, May 21, at St. Marks Catholic Church on South Lee’s Summit Road in Independence. Please join us.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 816-252-9909.