When Rose O’Neill’s illustrations appeared in True Magazine on September 19, 1896, she made history by becoming the first female cartoonist to publish a comic strip in America. A self-taught artist, O’Neill (1874-1944) had spent her childhood studying artists and submitting her work to various periodicals around the country. She set out for New York City at the age of nineteen with the intention of becoming a writer. Although she would publish numerous works throughout her career, she quickly impressed publishers with her drawings and was able to start a career as an illustrator.
Her illustrations appeared in a number of notable periodicals including Harper’s, Life, Cosmopolitan, and a number of ladies’ home journals. Her success led to a full-time position with Puck, the humor magazine known for its political satire and anecdotes. While talented in various forms of art and continuing to freelance, it was the creation of one particular cartoon character that launched O’Neill into fame: the Kewpie Baby.
The Kewpies made their first appearance in the December 1909 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal and became an instant sensation amongst readers of all ages. While their style was seen in some of O’Neill’s earlier characters, the creation of “Kewpieville” allowed her to write comics that focused on moral values and kindness. The comics were continuously published in Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, and Good Housekeeping well into the 1930s. The Kewpie Doll was soon created in 1913, resulting in a wave of toys, advertisements, and household goods portraying the characters. The Kewpies also became an unofficial mascot for the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, thanks to O’Neill’s involvement. Kewpie posters made an appearance with messages supporting the Women’s Right to Vote while several comics featured feminist-themed plots.
O’Neill made $1.4 million from her Kewpie creations, making her the highest-paid and wealthiest cartoonist of her time. All the while she continued to produce works of art that were much more “serious” in nature. Her success as an artist, writer, and cartoonist allowed her to develop a very lavish lifestyle, placing her in the center of the New York art world, but O’Neill eventually faced financial difficulties during the Great Depression. She died from complications of a stroke in 1944. Production of the Kewpie dolls continued through the 20th century. They remain a familiar part of popular culture all over the world.
[For more, see the Guide to the Rose O’Neill Collection, 1900-1953 (PR 369).]
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.