The Kewpie was not Rose O’Neill’s only successful creation. Although none met with the same level of popularity as the Kewpie, her Kuddle Kewpie, Scootles and Ho-Ho also were embraced by the buying public.
Kewpies captured the hearts and desires of kids and adults alike when they first arrived on the retail market in May 1913. The early magazine illustrations, from 1909-1911, set the stage for one of the most successful marketing adventures in the history of the United States. Manufacturers and retailers were clamoring to get in on the tidal wave.
The first Kewpies were produced in German porcelain. Since then Kewpies have been made in glass, wood, celluloid, plaster, soap, ivory, plastic, vinyl, rubber, wood pulp (composition), and fabric to name a few.
Guarded Secrets: The World of German Bisque Kewpies Created by Rose O’Neill
The most highly prized pieces in the realm of O’Neilliana are the German bisque Kewpies. They capture the hearts and desires of collectors today just as they did when the first ones arrived on the retail market in May 1913. The early magazine illustrations, from 1909-1911, set the stage for one of the most successful marketing adventures in the history of the United States. Manufacturers and retailers were clamoring to get in on the tidal wave. The finest pieces came from the German porcelain factories closely supervised by Rose herself. The quality to which she was so dedicated has become the ultimate reward for collectors.
Birth of the bisque Kewpie
The Kewpie began as illustrations Rose O’Neill drew for various magazine articles and books. A study of her art from the 1890s shows the gradual emergence of the top knot, star-shaped hands, and other Kewpie trademark characteristics that caught her attention as a child watching her little brother Clink.
A letter from the editor of Curtis Publishing Company is the first evidence of Rose being asked to develop the cupid’s identity. Their idea was to make them comic personalities such as Palmer Cox’s famous ‘Brownies.’ The Kewpies appeared in December 1909 in Ladies Home Journal, which only ran for three months. In December 1910, Woman’s Home Companion took off with illustrated stories and the birth of the ‘Kewpie Kutouts.’ The fascination these illustrations produced at George Borgfeldt & Company, New York, was the beginning of a very profitable partnership with Rose O’Neill.
Rose applied for the first bisque Kewpie copyright on December 17, 1912, which was received on March 4, 1913 – No.43680. This was the first of many that would go on record. George Borgfeldt & Company was the Kewpie agent in charge of importation and distribution. The January 1913 wholesaler’s magazine, Playthings, contained a Borgfeldt advertisement containing Kewpies.
The action Kewpies were born after the great success of the original straight versions. The Thinker, which first appeared in Rose’s The Kewpies’ Christmas Party in Woman’s Home Companion, December 1909, was the first action Kewpie produced. The action Kewpies were targeted toward the adult market as opposed to the first one made for children.
The first Kewpies in 1913 were predominately produced by Kestner & Company of Ohrdruf, Germany, who was originally designated as the Kewpie manufacturer.The demand for Kewpies soared at such a rate that smaller factories also began producing at full capacity. There were some 30 factories running prior to World War I. During the height of the Kewpie craze, these many small factories were working at full capacity, 24 hours a day.
Hermann Voigt of Schaala was one of the factories that began producing Kewpies in 1913. This factory was known to have produced the French soldiers wearing the red, black billed hats; World War I German soldiers wearing the black helmet with a gold falcon on the front (both the point on top and plum versions); the French soldier wearing the flat maroon pill-box hat; the Kewpie seated in the half a clam shell; and the series of Kewpies riding on a goat, rocking horse, and dog.
Carl Volker of Sonneberg, Germany, produced Kewpies as well as babies with knitted suits. (Could this have been the source of the Kewpies that appear with the knit hat and shirt that were commercially knitted?) Other known German factories producing Kewpies were Karl Standuss of Deuben, Fritz Bierscherk of Sonneberg, and Gebruder Voigt of Sitzendorf. Fritz Bierscherk was a doll factory and exporter that had great success dressing Kewpies produced in factories around Waltershausen.
Royal Rudolstadt potteries in Prussia is known to have produced a great variety of bisque vases and baskets along with four types of chairs that accompany Kewpies (the wicker style armchair and high hooded back chair, Chair of Kewpieology, and blue ladder-back chair). The two sizes of the wicker, handled basket with the Kewpie head popping out surrounded with flowers has the Royal Rudolstadt crown on the base.
One of the most noted stores about the production of Kewpies is when Rose was touring a factory and found the tiniest Kewpies were somewhat inferior. She is said to have told the workers that this particular type of doll was being made for the poorest of children and for that reason they must be made as carefully as the others. It worked and the dolls improved immediately. It is reported that Rose’s monthly average income from Kewpies in pre-war, pre-inflation dollars was $8,000. This amount included revenue received from bisque, composition and celluloid Kewpies.
The production of bisque Kewpies
Nine models of different sized Kewpies were initially sculpted by Rose in Germany. The molds of the first Kewpies were produced from these models. These were for the straight Kewpie with arms jointed at the shoulder.
The production of these pieces, along with those to follow, was achieved by artisans involved in a less than exacting art. The slip (liquid porcelain) used was inconsistent, thus providing much frustration. This is evident when a Kewpie is found having arms that do not quite fit flush to the arm hole i.e. the doll shrunk to a greater degree than the accompanying arms during the firing process. Stress points appear as hairline cracks. The most common place for these to be found are at the neck where the head and body, which each require separate molds, were not poured at the same thickness. When these are fired the two parts do not heat at the same rate thus producing a crack where they were attached prior to firing. The physical nature of the Kewpie itself a source of stress cracks at the neck as the head and body are quite large in proportion to the narrowing at the neck.
As mentioned, at the height of production many factories were involved in producing Kewpies. Each used its own particular slip formula, many times determined by the resources close to that factory and the formulas developed by its craftsmen or proprietors. This is a contributing factor explaining why today there appear examples of Kewpies that are a grainier or finer texture than others. It also is a factor in the slight size variations of apparently identical pieces, yet possessing a size difference of as much as 3/4 inch as some would shrink more than others during firing.
Producing the molds was an art in itself. The entire time a model was being sculpted, the artist had to keep in mind that the final porcelain version would shrink about one-third during firing. This would indicate that prior to the 13-inch bisque Kewpie being fired, the model stood nearly 17.5 inches tall. A two piece mold was used most often for each individual portion of the doll (head, body, right arm, left arm). If you examine Kewpies, you can trace the faint mold line up the sides of the head and over the topknot. Occasionally stress cracks appeared during the unmolding process if the clay stuck to the mold. These will be fine cracks right in the mold line itself. When action Kewpies began to appear, several molds were necessary for each piece of each pose.
Every piece had to have a hole to prevent the piece from exploding when fired. If you look very closely at even the tiniest Kewpie with stationary arms there is a tiny air hole in the back of its legs. Many pieces would use the armhole opening as a vent.
The next step in production was the cleaning to remove mold lines and imperfections in the porcelain. This was an extremely arduous process for the worker. It was long before ventilation systems were used. The dust produced was so fine it floated in the air causing respiratory and eye irritations in the workers.
Firing is an obstacle even for the doll maker of today that has electrically controlled kilns. Pre-war kilns were wood burning, thus being very hard to regulate. Pieces that did not attain the heat necessary would not be completely fired or ‘reduced.’ This first bisque firing took two days and two nights followed by many hours for cooling. When the pieces were removed from the kiln, it was a very light cream or white color.
The Kewpies then received a pinkish/flesh-colored wash. It you look very closely, many pieces have tiny finger prints in the wash where the artist touched the piece when the wash was still wet. After the wash was applied the pieces were fired again through a ‘china firing,’ which requires a much lower temperature than the original firing. The china firing required three quarters of a day followed by two days for cooling. A second china firing was necessary after features and highlighting were completed. It was possible these last two firings could have been combined into one by some of the factories to save time and costs.
The final step was stringing arms and legs, applying stickers as required by the trade embargo, and any packaging used. Generally Kewpies of less than 6 inches were packed by the dozen and those 6 inches and taller were in individual boxes with a paper label.
Signatures and stickers
The first Kewpie trademark No.92612 was registered on July 15, 1913. The Embargo Act required that each German Kewpie entering the United State bear information of the piece’s origin. As a result, two types of stickers were put on to fulfill this requirement: a circle copyright sticker and a heart or shield identification sticker. Those Kewpies that were marketed in Europe were not required to have this information, thus many feel the black ‘C’ with a circle around it, printed on a piece was the only marking applied to these pieces.
A red with gold edge sticker and white with black sticker was placed on each U.S.-bound Kewpie. There are at least five different red stickers.
* Heart-shaped with ‘KEWPIE’ and ‘Germany’ printed on it. This is the label that appears on each of the Kewpie from the catalog page of the first Borgfeldt advertisement.
* Shield-shaped with ‘KEWPIE’ and ‘Germany’
* Shield-shaped with ‘KEWPIE, Reg. U.S., Pat. Off., Germany’
* Shield-shaped with ‘KEWPIE, HERO’
* Shield-shaped with ‘KEWPIE-BOLDOOT’ (found on bisque Kewpie perfume bottles)
There are at least four of the white round copyright stickers.
* Black dot in the center ringed in white, then a black ring, ‘COPYRIGHT ROSE O’NEILL’ surrounded by a second black ring.
* ‘C’ in the center with a black ring, ‘ROSE O’NEILL 1913’ surrounded by a black ring.
* Black dot in the center surrounded by a white ring, a black ring ‘DESIGN PATENTED’ surrounded by a second black ring.
* ‘C’ in the center, black ring, ‘ROSE O’NEILL 1913’, a black ring, ‘KEWPIE.REG.U.S. PAT.OFF.DES.PAT.M.4 1913,’ a second black ring, and ‘GERMANY’ written underneath.
The ‘O’Neill’ signature was embossed in those Kewpies whose feet were large enough to hold the signature. Only stickers were applied to those that were too small. Many of the stickers did not survive through the years.
The black ‘C’ surrounded with a black circle sticker mentioned above appears on many of the pieces in collections today. Many also have two or four digit numbers embossed in the bottom. A group of the 4800 series numbers have been traced to the Borgfeldt catalogs. Some of the chairs mentioned as having come from Royal Rudolstadt have a two-digit number embossed in them, but we have not been able to determine the correlation or significance. Goebel incised the pieces it produced with its crown and some have ‘DEPOSE’ printed, and/or a two-digit number. The glass-eye Kewpies are marked on the back of the neck with ‘Ges. Gesch., O’Neill – J.D. K.’. As with all items produced on such as large scale, there will be variances, which have not been noted here. If your piece has a mark not described here, it does not mean it is not original.
World War I – 1914-1919
Nothing had more of an impact on the German bisque Kewpies than the outbreak of World War I. We know one shipload of Kewpies safely crossed the English Channel and that a second was sunk on the journey. Importations came to an end and with this came the end of German bisque Kewpies. The War shut down factories, turned manufacturing of Kewpies into other mediums and tainted the once celebrated German doll industry.
Scootles, the Baby Tourist, is not a Kewpie but a character Rose O’Neill later created that played a roll in her cartoons. O’Neill referred to her as Scootles because she was ‘always scooting off somewhere.’
Ho-Ho was the final Rose O’Neill creation. She referred to him as her ‘squatty little laughing Buddha with a laugh of the ages on his dimpled face.’ O’Neill originally made three sizes, which she gave to George Borgfeldt to produce. There also were Ho-Hos produced at Bonniebrook.