Originally appearing in the form of magazine illustrations between 1905 and 1909, Kewpie dolls made their appearance in 1913 in a design patented by Rose Cecil O'Neill (1874–1944). During O'Neill's lifetime, the dolls were a popular novelty item, often associated with carnivals and country fairs, where they were given as prizes. The Kewpie doll is one of the earliest and most successful examples of a mass-marketed toy. It has since become a sought-after collectable and an enduring symbol of "cuteness."
O'Neill's earliest versions of the Kewpies began appearing in the pages of the Ladies' Home Journal between 1905 and 1909 and took the Kewpie name in 1909. In 1910, O'Neill moved her characters to the Women's Home Companion. Three years later, she designed a babylike doll with its characteristic rotund shape and plume of wispy hair. The doll became an instant sensation and its sales made O'Neill a millionaire within a year. Just as Barbie dolls (see entry under 1950s—Commerce in volume 3) would later be dressed as a variety of characters, Kewpies came dressed as cowboys, farmers, bellboys, and firemen, and in the uniforms of U.S., British, French, and German soldiers. There was also a line of black Kewpies known as Hottentots. Besides the dolls, O'Neill created Kewpie images for a wide variety of products like chinaware, picture frames, clocks, greeting cards, wallpaper, and vases. O'Neill also wrote and illustrated a series of Kewpie books as well as a comic-strip version in the mid-1930s.
The Kewpie dolls were originally made of china or bisque (unglazed china). They were manufactured in Europe until World War I (1914–18), when U.S. firms like the Mutual Doll Company began making the Kewpies from a variety of materials, including fabric. To this day, Kewpie dolls remain sought after among doll collectors.
For More Information
Armitage, Shelley. Kewpies and Beyond: The World of Rose O'Neill. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
O'Neill, Rose Cecil. The Story of Rose O'Neill: An Autobiography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.