Rose O'Neill: Creator of the World-Famous Kewpie
Before Barbie came to dominate the doll world in the 1960s, another doll, the Kewpie, was the darling toy of little girls in the early days of the 20th century. Born in the mind of artist Rose O’Neill in 1911, the little cherubic drawing became one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Indeed, the Kewpie provided O’Neill with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. She amassed more than $1.4 million from licensing the image for toys, greeting cards, advertising, and many other products.
O’Neill’s talent stretched far beyond the Kewpie, however. She was a skilled sketch artist and illustrator, poet, author, and sculptor whose work was exhibited in Paris and New York. At age 13, she won a national children’s illustration contest that landed her a job illustrating magazines such as Puck, Harper’s Weekly, and The Ladies' Home Journal before she even graduated from high school. This talent is evident in a scrapbook held in the Missouri History Museum Archives.
Compiled by O’Neill’s close friend Gerald McDonald, with her help, the scrapbook features many articles on O’Neill’s life and successes, along with photographs and examples of her creations. There is much memorabilia pertaining to her home “Bonniebrook,” which was situated deep in the Ozark Hills in Taney County, Missouri. The estate was built on land that her Irish-born father had settled in the 1880s in an attempt to find a real wilderness in America. O’Neill was not confined to the hills and hollows; rather, she was sent off to a convent school where she received a classical education. Known for her beauty and talent, she had no problem excelling in all areas. She married young but was widowed soon after. Her second marriage brought her into the literary circles of New York when she married novelist Henry Leon Wilson, whose best-known work was the comedic novel Ruggles of Red Gap. Although maintaining homes in New York and Connecticut, O’Neill returned home frequently to Bonniebrook. It was there that the Kewpie doll was born and where she entertained many of New York’s talented young authors and poets.
It was through these literary circles that she most likely met Gerald McDonald. He was a literary critic and editor who later became a fixture of the New York Public Library. McDonald served several important posts at the library, including the head of its Special Collections Department and, finally, as the head of the American History Division. Finely illustrated envelopes addressed to McDonald are neatly pasted in the scrapbook and attest to his close friendship with O’Neill and her sister Callista, who was also an artist.
When McDonald passed away in 1969, his sister, Madelyn Henderson, donated the scrapbook to the Missouri Historical Society. The scrapbook stands both as a testament to McDonald’s dedication to his friend and to the talent of Rose O’Neill.
—Chris Gordon, Director of Library and Collections