Bill caldwell rose o’neill, creator of kewpie dolls, loved the ozarks local news static electricity in water


If you go to a garage sale, it’s not unusual to find a Kewpie doll among the items for sale. EBay has pages of them for sale for a range of prices. The little dolls were a marketing sensation in the first decades of the 20th century. Their creator, Rose O’Neill, is remembered mainly for those little dolls. But she also was a versatile artist who had a flair for style and publicity and a knack for merchandising her artwork.

O’Neill, born in 1874, was the daughter of a well-to-do bookseller. The family was often on the move as her father traveled. Her parents encouraged her artistic talents, at first thinking she would become an actress. However, she loved to draw. She entered an Omaha World Herald contest when she was 13 in 1887. Her drawing of "The Temptation" won the contest and a $5 gold piece, although skeptical judges made her submit a drawing test before they awarded her the prize.

Her father began collecting her works in a portfolio and submitted them to various publications for sale. In 1893, when she was 19, she moved — on her own — with a portfolio of 60 illustrations to New York City. She lived in a convent while submitting illustrations for popular magazines such as Harper’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar and Colliers. In 1896, she was hired as the first woman illustrator for the national humor magazine Puck. One signal that she knew the value of her work was that she retained the rights for all her illustrations, which meant the originals were returned to her.

Over the course of five years, she produced more than 700 illustrations. She was skilled and worked quickly to meet deadlines. While she was working in New York City, her father and family moved to Taney County, Missouri, where they homesteaded property. She visited their Ozark woodland home and fell in love with the green hills. Her income allowed her to build the family a 14-room, three-story home that she named Bonniebrook.

Besides Puck, O’Neill also drew advertising illustrations for Jell-O, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Oxydol, Edison Victrolas, the Rock Island Railroad and others from 1909 to 1920. She was in demand for illustrations in novels, poetry, magazine stories and children’s books. She wrote four novels and composed poetry, illustrating them herself.

It was in December 1909 with a little verse in Ladies’ Home Journal that the Kewpies made their debut. Kewpies took the country by storm, appearing in numerous magazines. In 1912, the first Kewpie dolls were produced by a German company; they later were produced in the U.S.

New Yorker writer Alexander King took a wry look back at the phenomenon in 1934: "Almost immediately, it became the national dream child, and for years it remained the most popular piece of American sculpture, making, it has been estimated, more than $1,400,000 for its designer, Miss Rose O’Neill. Miss O’Neill accepted her triumph without any particular surprise, since she was temperamentally disposed to consider her life a series of triumphs."

With an independent source of income, she could be personally independent as well. Between 1896 and 1907, she was married and divorced twice. Her first husband, Gray Latham, spent her money as fast as she made it. They divorced after five years.

In 1902, she married Harry Leon Wilson, the literary editor of Puck. It was a creative time for them both. She was elected to the Societe des Beaux Arts in Paris. It allowed her to display her drawings and paintings. They traveled between homes in Missouri, Connecticut, New York City, Paris and the Isle of Capri in Italy. After five years, it became clear their temperaments — hers exuberant and his sullen — clashed. They divorced, though they stayed on friendly terms. She never remarried after that.

She was an ardent suffragette who participated in rallies and used her illustrations to advocate women’s rights. But her heart was at home in Bonniebrook. It was there she found her inspiration looking out over the Ozark landscape from her third-floor studio.

Bonniebrook took on the aspects of a salon through the 1920s and 1930s with her many friends and acquaintances making the pilgrimage to the Ozarks. She was the main support for her elderly parents and her two siblings. Her sister Callista, in particular, worked in the business of marketing her Kewpie creations. She also supported numerous hangers-on and budding artists, some for years.

Popular culture continued to change, and by the 1930s, illustrators were being supplanted by photographers in the publishing world. Kewpies’ popularity, too, began to wane. Still resourceful, O’Neill planned in 1940 to introduce a new character, the HoHo, which looked much like a seated Kewpie-style laughing Buddha. The project suffered two fatal blows: the factory where the figurines were to be produced suffered a fire, and hostilities leading to World War II turned public interest against Asian subjects. Never one to watch pennies, she was reduced to selling her properties. She suffered a series of strokes in 1944 and died in Springfield on April 6.

Her mansion was destroyed by fire in 1947 and the property overgrown. Twenty years later, the Rose O’Neill Club was founded to preserve her memory. It became the Bonniebrook Historical Society in 1975, and work began on rebuilding the house, which was finished in 1993. The home and a museum now house archives and memorabilia from this most remarkable artist, sculptor and businesswoman who found inspiration at her home in the Ozarks.