Rose O'Neill and the Kewpies
Rose O'Neill (1874-1944), creator of the Kewpies, became one of the highest paid illustrators in America in the 1920s.
She was the first illustrator to build a merchandising empire from her work complete with story books, household products, dolls, and a clothing line. Her success was based on her artistic creation, the Kewpies.
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in rural Nebraska, she began drawing in childhood and was an accomplished self-taught artist in her teens.
After moving to New York and beginning her career as an illustrator, she became the first woman artist on the staff of Puck humor magazine in 1895. Her facile style with pen and ink lent itself well to black and white magazine story illustration.
Married in 1896 and divorced after five years, she moved to her families' home in the Missouri Ozarks, where she continued her career. She married Puck editor and novelist Harry Leon Wilson in 1902 and branched out as a writer and salon painter (she exhibited in Paris). Divorced again in 1907, she soon after developed the elf-like Kewpies.
They appeared in 1909, evolving from her title decorations of cute little flying Cupids she used on romance stories.
The “Kewps,” as she called them, existed to help people overcome their troubles. They were featured in a series of stories written and illustrated by her and published in Good Housekeeping, Woman's Home Companion, and Ladies' Home Journal.
Their spectacular popularity led to “Kewpie Kut Outs, two-sided paper dolls accompanied by stories by O'Neill. The paper dolls, popular with children led her to create little three-dimensional dolls that children could own and hold.
The Kewpie doll became one of the best known cartoon characters in the world, on a parallel for a time with Mickey Mouse.
She shared her time between homes in the Ozarks, New York, Connecticut, and a villa on the Isle of Capri. Generous with her less successful artist friends, she let them stay for extended periods in her various homes.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s the Kewpies' popularity faded, and with it, the fortunes of Rose O'Neill. With greatly reduced income from her enterprise, she retreated to her family home in the Ozarks where she lived in retirement until her death in 1944.
Below are some examples of Rose O'Neill's art.
Look in the Image Galleries for more Rose O'Neill
Above: Pen and ink story illustration signed Rose O'Neill Latham, 1899.
“An Emphatic Rejection,” Harper's New monthly Magazine, 1897.
“At the Musical,” Gag cartoon by Rose O'Neill.
“She sings with a great deal of expression, doesn't she?”
“Yes, I wonder she has any face left.”
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1898.
“Passionate Jane,” illustration for a poem, Good Housekeeping, 1904.
“It's Christmas and you are such a darling,” story illustration, 1906.
“The Wizard and the Child,” Rose Cecil O'Neil, c.1904. She signed her work and was known variously as Cecilia Rose O'Neill, Rose Cecil O'Neill, Rose O'Neill Latham (her first husband), Rose O'Neill Wilson (second husband), and simply C.R.O., used early in her career to hide the fact that she was a woman. Early women illustrators often used only their initials for the same reason.
When the Kewpies were introduced to a new magazine, they arrived with much fanfare. This introduction, written by Rose O'Neill, is from June, 1914.
The Kewpies Arrive (We Told You They Were Coming---Here They Are!
Oh, children dear, come here, come hear and see!
Come look, and leave your bread-and-buttering:
For something queer is flying near---and see
What tiny wings all flipping, fluttering!
The sun on every topknot, glittering!
Like flocks of little birds all flittering!
Their pretty little words all twittering---
Why, I declare they're Kewpies!
"A Kompilation of Kewpies"
An early Kewpie Kutout page, Woman's Home Companion, November 1914. Rose O'Neill was the first artist to produce two-sided paper dolls and clothing.
Above left: “In the Reign of Alfred Don't,” American Magazine
Above right: Rose O'Neill, 1904.
Rose O'Neill was one of America's most prolific artists. More about her can be found at
To quote from the site, “she was a sculptor, suffragist, inventor, business woman, philosopher, poet, novelist, children's book author, and even a musician.”
Top of Page