Dec 31, 2010

While I was in Branson, Missouri I visited Bonniebrook, the home of Rose O’Neill. O’Neill is best remembered as the creator of the Kewpie Doll. I think everyone recognizes the Kewpie Doll. Other popular dolls have faded in memory but the Kewpie has not.

The story of Rose O’Neill is fascinating. Born in Pennsylvania she moved to Nebraska. At the age of 14 she won a contest sponsored by the Omaha World Herald for the best drawing by a Nebraska schoolchild. Her submission, called “Temptation Leading Down into an Abyss,” did not seem like a topic or drawing by a 14-year old so the editor called her into the office to demonstrate her drawing ability. Proving her artistic talent she won first place which launched her career.

In 1892, when O’Neill was 18, her mother sold the family cow to send her to New York to seek work as an illustrator. That seems pretty adventurous for a female even today. She stayed with the Sisters of St. Regis who accompanied her on her sales calls. She sold her illustrations to Colliers, Life, and Harpers. She became the first female staff artist at Puck Magazine.

A year after she had moved to New York, Rose visited her family’s new home in the remote Missouri Ozarks. It took two days by wagon to get from Springfield, Missouri to the O’Neill homestead. In her autobiography, Rose recalled, “The next day we went deeper and deeper into the thick woods. I forgot my fears and shouted with joy. I called it the “tangle” and my extravagant heart was tangled in it for good.” Today Springfield is less than an hour away via excellent roads.

Over the years she sent money to her family for the construction of their 14-room Ozark home that she named Bonniebrook because of the little stream that ran along side the family’s house. Even today it is nestled among the “tangles” with the little stream bubbling past.

Bonniebrook burned to the ground in 1947 but it has been rebuilt, the grounds resurrected, with a museum and gift shop added. The museum houses hundreds of dolls and other memorabilia of O’Neill and her era, along with artifacts pertinent to her life and Bonniebrook.

The Kewpies made their debut in the 1909 Christmas issue of The Ladies Home Journal. It was quickly followed by a Kewpie comic strip and paper dolls. A German company produced the Kewpie Dolls and soon they were on everyone’s Christmas wish list. Adults wanted them, too. An amazing variety of items from doorknockers to tea sets sported the adorable Kewpies. The doll is mentioned in Anne Frank’s diary, in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, was included in the 1939 New York World Fair’s time capsule, and Jell-O used the Kewpie Doll to promote their product.

O’Neill was also involved in the fight for Women’s Rights. In referring to the constricting Victorian women’s clothing she said, “The first step is to free women from the yoke of modern fashions and modern dress. How can they hope to compete with men when they are boxed up tight in the clothes that are worn today?” Some of her cartoons supporting women’s rights included Kewpie Dolls.

According to O’Neill she portrayed the Kewpie as doing good deeds in a funny way because “The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does.”