Rose O'Neill, you won't believe the things this woman, born in 1874, invented

Rose O'Neill, you won't believe the things this woman, born in 1874, invented

Rose O'Neil - A bohemian illustrator and businesswoman

A few days ago I was introduced to Kewpie Mayonnaise (which is all the rage, currently) by a family member and something in the back of my mind connected the name of the mayonnaise and the logo on the bottle to a doll which was famous years ago, called, you guessed it, the Kewpie Doll.

Kewpie Mayonnaise Rose O

On further investigation I discovered that there's a fascinating story behind the Kewpie and that a remarkable woman was responsible for this innovation - Rose O'Neill was born in 1874 in Pennsylvania in the United States. What she would go on to achieve was truly unusual for the era in which she lived, a time when women were not even allowed to vote.

Rose O'Neill

Kewpie Mayonnaise Rose O Neill

Rose's parents were odd for the times they lived in too, her father ran a book selling business, but more or less stayed home to care for the family of seven children, while her mother (a school teacher, talented musician and actress), brought in most of the money. William O'Neill uprooted his family on a whim and relocated them, by wagon, to the frontier outpost of Nebraska. The idea was for the family to live a simple farming life, but neither he, nor his wife were suited to the exploit and the family, who had been used to a life of luxury, fell on hard times.

Rose was a talented child and displayed a unique genius for illustration. She was so good, in fact, that at the tender age of 13 she won a drawing competition run by the Omaha Herald (and mostly reserved for boys), with her entry called 'Temptation'. She brought home a princely sum of $5 and her career was born. The family needed money, so William O'Neill decided to sell his daughter's art in order to support them, a decision that staved off starvation.

Puck magazine cover Rose O

Rose wanted to get a permanent job with anyone who would pay her to draw, but her sister, Callista, convinced her father that Rose needed to perfect her art and develop her talent, so with her sister's help, Rose was sent to a convent in New York to complete her education. At 19, Rose approached Puck magazine for a job, the magazine which was started in 1877 is described by Wikipedia as '(a)humor magazine of colorful cartoons, caricatures and political satire of the issues of the day.' Rose was hired on the spot, and was the first woman to hold the position of illustrator.

She also sold her drawings to Truth and Cosmopolitan magazines. In 1896 she married Gray Latham, a short-lived affair that lasted only 5 years. Later, she married the assistant editor of Puck, Harry Leon Wilson, also a short marriage and by all accounts, stormy. Harry, a writer, had the benefit of Rose's talent and it's no doubt part of the reason why his books, illustrated by her, were so successful.


Puck magazine cover Rose O

During 1908 Rose concepulized a charcater, which she felt compelled to draw, that character was 'Kewpie', based on both the visual idea and the spirit of Cupid- She described them as 'a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time'. Rose drew a comic strip for Ladies' Home Journal featuring the first ever Kewpie in 1909. The cartoon character was a runaway success, sparking national interest, and a greedy fan base that was to last for 30 years and turn Rose into the most successful female illustrator of her generation.

However, the fame of her drawings was not enough to satisfy this amazing woman, no, she decided to have a doll made to personify her Kewpie. So she set off for Germany and engaged a manufacturer there, J. D. Kestner, to make dolls based on a mold that she'd sculptured by hand. The dolls were a hit, and are regarded as the first mass market toys produced, ever. This innovation would go on to provide Rose with most of her fortune - it is estimated that she made around $1.5 million from the sale of her Kewpies.

Other achievements and interests

Rose was a prolific artist, author and poet. Most of her published work was illustrated and received good press and made reasonable sales. She also tried her hand at painting and sculpture - floating several successful exhibitions in France and the United States - Galerie Devambez(Paris) and the Wildenstein Galleries(New York). Rose created the logo and package designs for Jell-O, Kelloggs' Corn Flakes and Eastman Kodak.

Rose O Neill Women must vote poster

A staunch supporter of the Suffrage movement, Rose marched and illustrated posters for the protests until 1920 when the right to vote, for women, became legal.

Bohemian lifestyle

Rose O Neill

Rose was an exceptional creator, but apart from good investments in properties and stocks, her money management skills were not so great. Rose 'kept' several properties around the world(a villa in Capri, a mansion in Connecticut, a luxury duplex townhouse in New York's Washing Square, and 'Bonniebrook' in the Ozark Hills.) She spent most of her time at her affectionately named 'Castle Carabas', on the Saugatuck River in Westport (1922 to 1941). Set on 10 acres, Rose used the sprawling grounds to house her entourage of hangers on, whom she supported completely. Playwrights, actors, artists, poets, and anyone fortunate enough to be invited to stay on, by Rose, lived in the lap of luxury, while Rose paid the bills.

Unfortunately, Rose lost a great deal of money in the stock market crash during the Great Depression, she also failed to renew trademarks and copyrights on her most famous doll, Kewpie. Rose returned to BonnieBrook on the Ozarks, quite destitute. By 1937, her drawings were considered too old fashioned to sell, and photography had replaced the need for illustrators. She died in 1944 soon after the passing of her beloved mother.


  • Garda. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929
  • The Goblin Woman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1930
  • The Kewpie Kutouts. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1914
  • The Kewpies and Dotty Darling. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1912
  • The Kewpies and the Runaway Baby. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928
  • The Kewpies Their Book. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1913
  • The Lady in the White Veil. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1909
  • The Loves of Edwy. Boston: Lothrop Publishing Co., 1904
  • The Master-Mistress. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1922
  • Scootles and Kewpie Doll Book. Akron: Saalfield Publishing Co., 1936
  • Scootles in Kewpieville. Akron: Saalfield Publishing Co., 1936
  • The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography. Miriam Formanek-Brunell, ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997

Other works and interesting links and image sources


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