Rose O’Neill, Her life and creations
Rose O’Neill was born on June 25, 1874, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, the second child of Patrick and Alice Asenath O’Neill. Rose’s personality was a blend of her father’s impractical nature and her mother’s commonsense. Rose already was drawing while still a young child, and was largely self taught by studying
illustrated art books. The O’Neills moved to the outskirts of Omaha. After winning a drawing contest for children under 15 sponsored by the Omaha World Herald, she started receiving commissions for several mid-western publications.
At seventeen, Rose moved to New York City, taking along her first novel that included illustrations. The publishers had no use for her novel, but they did find a fresh talent in her drawing style. She was hired as the first full-time woman artist on the staff of Puck magazine, a well known humor publication. She signed her name
“O’Neill” so her gender could remain unknown. Her work was favorably compared to drawings by Harrison Fisher and C.D. Gibson. Rose also produced countless illustrations for Harper’s, Life, and other publications.
Rose married Gray Latham, but the marriage was marred by his spendthrift ways. They were divorced in 1902. Her second marriage, to novelist-humorist Harry Leon Wilson, also was ruined by incompatibility, with Rose’s effervescent personality in direct oppositions to Harry’s moodiness. They divorced in 1907.
Rose became world famous for creating the Kewpies. Their first appearance was in the December 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal. They later were used in many other magazines and publications. Kewpies believed in “doing good deeds in a funny way.” Rose wrote and illustrated all of the Kewpie stories. The Kewpies caught on like wildfire with the public, resulting in a stampeded of eager manufacturers trying to get exclusive licensing rights. Kewpies appeared on everything from children’s garments to box cameras, jewelry, postcards, and stationery.
The most profitable versions of the Kewpie were created in 1913. Millions of German-made bisque Kewpie dolls and figurines were sold around the world. Rose’s Kewpie fortune has been estimated to have been equivalent to today’s sum of $200 million. Rose later created the very successful Scootles doll.
Rose also wrote four novels, a book of poetry, and authored many magazine stories. She was a public icon.
The drawings often featured half-human, half animal creatures that represented a long ago and personal Arcadian dream.A gifted storyteller, an ardent suffragist, Rose tirelessly worked for the Votes for Women campaigns of the 1910s. Rose also created advertisements for Kellogg’s corn flakes, Rock Island railroad, and Pratt & Lambert paints. She created more than 100 advertisements for Jell-o gelatin alone.
At the height of her popularity, Rose kept four homes including a villa in Capri, a mansion in Connecticut, a luxury duplex townhouse in New York’s Washing Square, and ‘Bonniebrook’ in the Ozark Hills, which was her heart’s true home. Bonniebrook was a rambling 14-room hand built wood structure deep in the Ozarks north of Branson.
Like her father, Rose was not a careful custodian of her earnings. In addition to supporting her family, she was generous to friends and hangers on alike. More of her money was lost in the stock market crash, and in the Great Depression that followed. Rose moved back to Bonniebrook after her mother’s death in 1937. Her illustration style was very dated, and only a few new assignments were offered to her. Eventually, all new sources of income had disappeared. She had also let most of the Kewpie copyrights, trademarks, and patents lapse. Ill health plagued Rose, and she suffered a series of strokes in the early 1940s. She died at age 69 on April 6, 1944, at the Springfield, MO, home of a nephew, and was buried at Bonniebrook.
Bonniebrook itself burned down in 1947. Fortunately, the majority of her precious artworks had been removed from the house just days prior to the fire.
The Kewpie craze faded with time and gradually was replaced by Disney’s Mickey Mouse.
Every April, Rose O’Neill fans and collectors gather in Branson, MO, to celebrate and study the life and works of ‘the One Rose.” Founded in 1967 by Pearl Hodges and other enthusiasts, the annual Kewpiesta combines great fun with seminars, workshops, and a trade corner. Please join us to find out how to attend. It is the perfect way to have a great time!