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Kewpie Dolls: Collectors Still Love These Little Imps

Kewpie dolls are an adorable little addition to any antique collector’s menagerie. These little imps also have an interesting background.

The charming dolls were born in the early part of the 20th century after illustrator Rose O’Neill decided to satisfy her public’s request for a doll that complimented her stories and illustrations.

O’Neill was born in Pennsylvania in 1874, but by the age of 14, showed a talent for drawing after she won a contest sponsored by the Omaha World Herald. She went to New York City and studied with the Sisters of St. Regis, developing a portfolio that sold rapidly and launched her as a commercial success.

In fact, while she was still a teenager, she became the highest paid female illustrator in the country. These Kewpies were a big part of her success and collectors today enjoy seeking and displaying the darling dolls and other advertising items that show the image.

Like little cherubs, a Kewpie has two small wings attached at the top of each shoulder and tiny tufts of light brown hair on their heads. But the eyes are the trademark characteristic, with big brown saucers, impishly gazing to the right. A round cherubic body and simple smile completes the look that remains Kewpie today.

Kewpie’s big success on paper began in 1909, when the Ladies Home Journal December issue used their image to close a story and they were an immediate success. Magazines that included Kewpie illustrated stories sold out as soon as they hit the newsstands during these early years.

A paper doll version was the first Kewpie doll available to the public back in 1912. For readers who may not be familiar with the popularity of paper dolls, they were a major toy for little girls in the first half of the 20th century (prior to Barbie’s arrival).

German manufacturers created the bisque dolls, after O’Neill decided to find a doll maker to answer the requests, she heard from children who wanted a real Kewpie to hold. The little china dolls were popular worldwide.

They can be found in several sizes, some with jointed shoulders, wearing different accessories, often with the heart-like badge on their chest that proclaims official Kewpie.

In fact, Kewpies can be found in all manner of items from dolls to ice cream molds. I’ve even seen a photo of a rare automobile radiator cap with a Kewpie on top. Other novelties include toy drums, ashtrays, yard goods, jewelry, baby shoes and metal trays. Values vary greatly though on the novelty items.

World War I meant that the German production of these popular figures and items ceased abruptly and O’Neill turned to other images and more serious art. She continued her success, though the Kewpie rage was pretty much over by the late 1930s. Finally, in the 1940s O’Neill’s fortune dwindled and her fame faded. She died in 1944.

Enthusiasts today can find a museum at the site of her family home, Bonniebrook, near Springfield, Mo. This is the spot that her family moved to while she was in New York and making a name for herself in the publishing world.

O’Neill lived there from time to time, and it’s reported on the Bonniebrook historical web site that it is there that she literally dreamed up the idea of Kewpie.

The story goes that she took a nap in a treehouse studio on the family’s rural property and dreamt of cupids bouncing on her coverlet, and one sitting on her hand. When she awoke, she went to her drawing board and sketched the famous babies for the very first time.

There are some fascinating books on O’Neill and of course, many stories in antiques journals and collectible publications. I find her an interesting 20th century woman (she was a suffragette), with her fame in a field then dominated by men, plus two divorces along the way, at a time when divorce was not common.

Today, Kewpies can be found in bisque, composition, celluloid, rubber and plastic. The style of doll known as a Kewpie has been reproduced by many manufacturers at various times. But the signed O’Neill versions are rare and still pricey if they are in good shape.

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