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Missouri artist's Kewpie dolls turn 100 this year

Sunday, September 9, 2012 | 4:13 p.m. CDT; updated 8:27 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 12, 2012

BRANSON — One hundred years ago, a doll whose image was born in a studio near Branson was about to become a global sensation.

Rose O'Neill was already a successful artist in 1912. At 38, she had worked for 20 years as an illustrator for dozens of magazines and had produced several paintings and drawings. But the Kewpie characters she created in 1909 in her studio at her family home of Bonniebrook near Branson had become increasingly popular. The stories and illustrations had inspired readers to request Kewpies they could hold in their hands.

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Susan Scott, president of the Bonniebrook Historical Society, said O'Neill made models for 12 sizes of Kewpies. The dolls were manufactured by George Borgfeldt & Company in Germany, which began producing them in time for Christmas. Scott said O'Neill took a personal interest in the dolls' production from the start and made sure the dolls' painters knew the smallest Kewpie, only a couple of inches high, needed the most attention.

"She told the artists, 'I want you to take the most care with the tiniest of the Kewpies because those will be the Kewpies that poor children can afford to buy,'" Scott said.

David O'Neill is Rose O'Neill's great-nephew. He is also founder and owner of the Rose O'Neill Museum in Springfield. He said his great-aunt's direct involvement in the production of the dolls came after she disapproved of the manufacturer's original product. He said O'Neill was traveling in Italy with her sister when she received a package containing a sample of the first run of dolls.

"She didn't like it," O'Neill said. "She said, 'This is a travesty.'"

He said those first dolls were made "the way a doll manufacturer would make them." The eyes had pupils and eyelashes, but they did not look like her characters. He said Rose O'Neill told her sister there would not be any Kewpie dolls at all if they could not be produced any better.

"One of the reasons they were such high quality was because of Rose," David O'Neill said of the later dolls.

She wrote that she traveled to Germany and made the manufacturer destroy the molds of the dolls that had been so far produced. The workers started over, and the result was the Kewpie that became a world icon.

Each smiling doll had eyes that look to one side (some dolls look left, some look right). Other characteristics include a potbelly, tiny wings just behind the neck, a smile, dots for eyebrows, a topknot and a sticker label in the shape of a heart.

The dolls, which were made of an unglazed porcelain called bisque, were an immediate hit.

"They sold like hot cakes," David O'Neill said. "They were the Barbie doll of their time."

By 1913, the Kewpie craze swept across the globe, and soon, a person could buy numerous products with the Kewpie name or image. Among them were lamps, candleholders, radiator caps, ice cream makers, ice cream molds, inkwells, toothbrushes, cameras, dishes, jasperware and garters —  yes, the garters men wore to hold up their socks. There was even a Kewpie brand of toilet paper.

There were 17 factories in Germany alone, and 30 altogether, which produced Kewpie dolls and products to keep up with demand.

When World War I started, it became impractical to import dolls from Germany, and David O'Neill said American companies often refused to sell German-made products. That meant factories in places such as England, France, Japan and the United States worked harder to keep up with demand.

The dolls even influenced fashion. O'Neill said many women in their teens began shaving their eyebrows into dots to imitate the Kewpie look.

Scott said Rose O'Neill saw her characters as "Kewpies doing good deeds." The Kewpies reflected O'Neill's personality. They were her social conscience.

With the dolls at their height of popularity, O'Neill often used Kewpies to promote awareness of issues important to her. For instance, O'Neill supported women's suffrage, so she produced Kewpie cartoons and posters promoting a woman's right to vote.

Her opposition to prejudice came out in a 1912 storybook in which Kewpies come to befriend a black child who was forbidden to play with the other white children. Scott said the story could be seen as risky at that time.

"She got away with it because it wasn't preachy," Scott said. "It was the Kewpies."

Kewpies were a little more nuanced during wartime. Although O'Neill was opposed to war, she produced Kewpies in military garb in support of the troops.

The popularity of the Kewpie began to wane in the 1920s. Eventually, the dolls were made of other materials such as celluloid and vinyl. Imitations of Kewpies became commonplace. David O'Neill said a real problem came from doll wholesalers who would make enough changes to the Kewpie design to avoid legal issues. Many of the knockoffs featured dolls that looked straight ahead.

Scott said Kewpies quickly caught on in Japan, where they remain popular. There is even a Kewpie brand of mayonnaise still in production. However, Scott said, O'Neill never saw any royalties from merchandise sold in Japan.

Despite the Kewpie decline, Scott said Rose O'Neill made $1.4 million from royalties. Because of O'Neill's generous nature, helping her family and other artists, she eventually lost her fortune, Scott said. But the dolls never completely went away. They became popular carnival prizes (although some of those were not authentic or licensed), and a company in China continues to produce Kewpie dolls.


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