Cases of Kewpie dolls are only one aspect of Springfield’s Rose O’Neill Museum.
The name Rose O’Neill may not ring as many bells these days, but it’s likely her legacy will conjure up some smiles: O’Neill is the mother of the world-famous Kewpie dolls. During her heyday, O’Neill was an artistic star, her work visible the world over — and although she grew up elsewhere, she considered the Ozarks to be her home.
“Rose O’Neill was an artist from the cradle,” recorded The Iola Register on May 27, 1913. “Though an Ozark mountain girl, who never saw the inside of an art school and little of any other sort of school, she has become one of the best illustrators and originators of quaint fancies in art in the country.”
And a great collection of her work is available right in Springfield. The Rose O’Neill Museum is stuffed to the brim with memorabilia and artwork — and is owned, operated and offered to see by O’Neill’s great nephew.
O’Neill’s career began as a teenager, when she started sketching at her home in Nebraska. Things, however, really launched in 1893, when she and her father traveled to visit the Columbian Exposition.
“She got to see a lot of artwork and sculptures and what have you there,” says David O’Neill, the artist’s great nephew. “And then she left Chicago on a train and went by herself to New York City, and had a portfolio under her arm of books she’d written and illustrations — at 19 years old.”
The plan was to sell that work to publishers. “Actually, she stayed with some nuns in a convent up there, and they would take her around to the different publishers,” says O’Neill. “Most of the publishers told her she needed to work on her writing a little bit, but they’d be interested in buying some of her illustrations. So she started selling her illustrations just right off.”
Soon after the turn of the 20th century, some of those illustrations began featuring happy, winged, Cupid-like creatures. The Kewpie concept, however, didn’t develop until an employee of the Ladies’ Home Journal approached O’Neill.
“He cut a lot of these little figures out, and sent them to Rose and said, ‘If you would do some illustrations with these, we’ll write some stories to go with them,” says O’Neill. “And she wrote him back and said, ‘I can do the stories, too. Don’t you doubt me.’”
The Kewpies officially debuted in December 1909 — and the cute, helpful characters quickly garnered a growing fan base. “She figured (Kewpie) was a short name for Cupid,” explains O’Neill. “But Cupid usually got people in trouble, while the Kewpies was designed to get people out of trouble.”
One person who wasn’t impressed with Kewpies, however, was an artist named Palmer Cox. The pen behind the Brownies cartoon characters, Palmer was under contract with the Journal; he sued because he believed that the Kewpies were competiting with him. The Journal in turn ended its agreement with O’Neill.
It would seem Cox was right to be worried. In an article in the Asbury Park Press in 1917 about Kewpies, the creatures were described as “those chubby little babies who swept Palmer Cox’s Brownies off the popularity stage years back and who have been holding their position in the limelight ever since.”
After the Journal ceased printing the Kewpie drawings and stories — also created by O’Neill — they were picked up by the Woman’s Home Companion.
The character’s popularity continued to grow. The State Historical Society of Missouri writes that Kewpies were “the most widely known cartoon character until Mickey Mouse.” Clubs and pets were named in their honor; entire parties were themed around them.
One such gathering, held in 1912, was recorded by The Walnut Valley Times as featuring “a hunt for hidden Kewpies, and for which Kewpies were given as souvenirs and sandwiches in their shape were served.”
Around that same time, Kewpie Kutouts — paper dolls that could be obtained by mail order — were born. But that wasn’t enough.
“Women began writing the artist that her Kewpies were ‘just too cute for anything,’ and they wanted a real Kewpie doll, with actual Kewpie curves, instead of merely flat paper drawings,” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a full-page story about O’Neil in 1913. “The curious little topknot which is a distinguishing feature of every Kewpie caught the fancy of many mothers, who wrote that their babies had just such a topknot. ‘Give us a Kewpie doll that we can dress,’ they insisted.”
So, in 1913, she did just that.
An advertisement in the Pittsburg Daily Post announced the local debut of the dolls on March 26, 1913.
At that point, things really went Kewpie Krazy. “The Kewpie doll is said to make everybody happy — it possesses the jubilant magic which produces a smile on the beholder’s countenance,” recorded The Times-Democrat in 1913. “It has gained an immediate popularity and is being employed for many purposes besides that of a children’s toy — among others as a dinner favor.”
It wasn’t long before dolls weren’t the only thing being made. “They had Kewpie toothbrushes, comb and brush sets, and candlesticks, and lamps and silverware,” says O’Neill of just a few of the items.
Even unlikely demographics got in on the fad with Kewpie radiator caps. “So yeah, they were so popular that even men would put them on automobiles,” says O’Neill.
An Ozarks retreat
The Kewpies’ popularity was so great and instantaneous that it caused O’Neill to seek refuge: She retreated to Bonniebrook, an estate near Branson, which O’Neill funded for her family after they moved from Nebraska to the Ozarks.
Going to the Ozarks gave her physical privacy. After all, it was difficult to reach the house, something that multiple newspapers made sure to explain. The Post-Dispatch was one of them:
“You start by crossing Roark on a rope ferry. Roark is supposed to be a creek, but no Ozarker adds that word. It is the only stream in that section, except the White and James rivers, which is not named for some beast or bird. After Roark you ford Bee Creek a few times, Bull Creek a few more times, Bear Creek a great many times, and finally reach Bonniebrook. Bear Creek, by the way, is the Taney County stream so crooked that it is noted chiefly as crossing itself four times in five miles.
If you do not get irretrievably lost in trying to follow Bear Creek’s gyrations you will touch at last the dim trail that leads to Poe’s Ultima Thule — out of space, out of time. Allight, swing open an iron gate, and there, a few rods ahead of you is the home of Rose O’Neill. You come across it unexpectedly, for the big frame house is painted green, to consort poetically with the forest greenery that environs and overwhelms the dwelling. These trees grow flush up against the house. There is one giant catalpa, in full and fragrant bloom this Junetime, which brushes and caresses the windows of the artist’s studio at the top of the house.”
But while people were unlikely to trek to the house, requests still found her.
“But even here, it seems, I am not to escape altogether,” O’Neill told the Post-Dispatch in June 1913. “People seem to imagine that I am growing fabulously wealthy from the royalties on Kewpie, and my mail since I came back to Bonniebrook a few weeks ago has been filled with requests for contributions of various sorts. Some have written asking me to set them up in business, others to provide funds to enable them to pursue an artistic career, and in time I shall be expected to found libraries.”
Those seekers make sense: While accounts vary, the Post-Dispatch article stated that O’Neill received $5,000 the month after Kewpie dolls debuted; according to an online calculator, that amount equals approximately $118,262 in 2016. The same article stated that O’Neill netted a salary of around $20,000 per year before Kewpie dolls appeared — the equivalent of $473,000 today.
The requests-by-mail, however, weren’t limited to people asking for money. Another article — published in The St. Louis Star and Times in May 1913 — noted that “even here requests for ‘Kewpie’ ideas have followed her. Her daily mail numbers hundreds of letters from novelty manufacturers who desire to use the ‘Kewpie’ name and ideas to further the sale of their wares.”
One of the places, however, didn’t seek O’Neill’s blessing. Sears, Roebuck, and Co., launched a Kewpie Kamera without asking permission or paying O’Neill any royalties. “So she sued Sears and Roebuck,” says O’Neill. “Which back then, Sears and Roebuck would be like Walmart.”
She wasn’t entirely successful in her quest for justice: Since O’Neill hadn’t trademarked the word Kewpie with regard to cameras, the company could continue to use it — but they had to remove Kewpie images from the boxes.
Ahead of her time
According to O’Neill, Kewpies hit their peak popualarity around the beginning of World War I: The items were imported from Germany, something that had to end after an embargo during the war.
“When they couldn’t get it (from Germany), they found other suppliers who would produce stuff for them in Paris and in Japan and different places,” says O’Neill. “To keep the fad going, because when the Kewpies got popular, their popularity went worldwide which was kind of unusual for back in that time.”
But O’Neill’s Kewpie-based fame and fortune weren’t the only avenues in which she was unique. In a day and age when divorce was rare, O’Neill was married — and divorced — twice by her early 30s. Her most famous statue, “The Embrace of the Tree” was exhibited at the Academy of Arts in Paris, and she’s rumored to have inspired the song “Rose of Washington Square.” She traveled extensively in Europe, and produced many pieces of serious art.
“She illustrated for magazines, she wrote music, she published novels, she published a book of poetry,” says O’Neill. “You know, she could do it all.”
Despite such experiences, the Missouri Historical Review noted in 1968 that O’Neill was always drawn to the Ozarks: “Although she presided over a center of old-world culture at her villa on the Isle of Capri, a studio in New York which served as a rendezvous for celebrities in the arts, and ‘Carabas Castle,’ a Connecticut country home, she often longed for Bonniebrook, with its ‘ragged rascal beauty.'”
She also actively fought for equality. O’Neill was an ardent proponent of the suffragist movement, often using her support to “draw” support of it. O’Neill also designed African American Kewpie counterparts called Hot’n’Tots, and featured “Lil Brown,” an African American character, in her drawings. “She was actually ahead of her time,” says O’Neill.
The world-famous artist didn’t rest on her Kewpie laurels. She worked much of the rest of her life, often clad in “rose or wine-colored velvet flowing robes over Grecian-style gowns of peach silk,” wrote the Review. “These robes were often referred to as her ‘aura.’
O’Neill’s final creation was the Ho-Ho, a Budda-like doll, around 1940. She passed away four years later in Springfield — at the same house where her great nephew lived on Summit Street, and was buried at Bonniebrook.
Building the museum
David O’Neill, the artist’s great nephew, owns and operates the Rose O’Neill Museum in Springfield. He has spent decades collecting her work.
Since O’Neill was only five years old when his great aunt died, few in-person memories of her remain. But he does have a picture of his two-year-old self holding a Kewpie that O’Neill sent him for Easter — and today, he has collected nearly $3.5 million worth of her work.
“…I started out collecting some of the mascots that went on the old radiator caps ‘cause I was going to a lot of automotive swap meets,” says O’Neill. “And so I got some of those, and then the dishes intrigued me.”
One thing led to another: “I’d see something different that I didn’t have, and I’d a lot of times wind up buying it,” he says. “So I wound up with cabinets full.”
As the collection grew, O’Neill decided to make it publicly available. He moved the items to a building he owned in Springfield’s Galloway area, and opened the museum around 2009.
Cabinets of Kewpie dish sets are only one aspect of O’Neill’s museum.
O’Neill doesn’t know how many pieces comprise his collection. But it’s certain there’s a lot: There are dishes — set after set — and dolls. Pictures and paintings from the O’Neill family’s collection, even those not connected with Kewpies, fill an entire room. Radiator caps, salt and pepper shakers, and pennants are also on display. “And we’ve got a lot of other stuff besides just the artwork and the dishes,” says O’Neill. “A lot of Rose’s little manuals that she kept notes in and did sketches in.”
In the beginning, O’Neill built his collection via lots of stops at antique stores and flea markets. “But then later on, when eBay came out, then it got to where you didn’t need to travel,” he says. “You sit on the computer and find more of ‘em then you could when you’d drive around the country looking for them.”
And all of it is available to see — for free. “It’s just letting people know what an artist Rose was,” says O’Neill. “A lot of people have heard about Rose, maybe heard of the Kewpie doll, and know that she created the Kewpie doll. But there’s over 6,000 of her illustrations that were published. I mean, not just illustrations that she done — but were actually published in magazines and newspapers. It’s amazing the amount of work that she put out in her lifetime.”
Want to visit?
The Rose O’Neill Museum (4144 S. Lone Pine Ave., Springfield) is open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.
Fans of O’Neill’s work may also visit Bonniebrook. However, it should be noted that the original home was destroyed by fire in 1947; the home that’s viewable today is a recreation of what was there before.