Rose O’Neill created the design for the original Kewpie Dolls in 1909.
The dolls were manufactured by George Borgfeldt and Co. in Germany, which began producing them in time for Christmas.
O’Neill took a personal interest in the dolls’ production from the start and made sure the dolls’ painters knew that the smallest Kewpie, only a couple of inches high, needed the most attention.
“She told the artists, ‘I want you to take the most care with the tiniest of the Kewpies because those will be the Kewpies that poor children can afford to buy,’
David O’Neill is Rose O’Neill’s great-nephew. He also is founder and owner of the Rose O’Neill Museum in Springfield.
He said his great-aunt’s direct involvement in the production of the dolls came after she disapproved of the manufacturer’s original product. He said O’Neill was traveling in Italy with her sister when she received a package containing a sample of the first run of dolls.
“She didn’t like it,” O’Neill said. “She said, ‘This is a travesty.’ “
He said those first dolls were made “the way a doll manufacturer would make them.” The eyes had pupils and eyelashes, but they did not look like her characters. He said Rose O’Neill told her sister there would not be any Kewpie dolls at all if they could not be produced any better.
She wrote that she traveled to Germany and made the manufacturer destroy the molds of the dolls that had been so far produced. The workers started over, and the result was the Kewpie that became a world icon.
Each smiling doll had eyes that look to one side (some dolls look left, some look right).
Other characteristics include a potbelly, tiny wings just behind the neck, a smile, dots for eyebrows, a topknot and a sticker label in the shape of a heart.
The dolls, which were made of an unglazed porcelain called bisque, were an immediate hit.
By 1913, the Kewpie craze swept across the globe, and soon a person could buy numerous products with the Kewpie name or image.
Among them were lamps, candleholders, radiator caps, ice cream makers, ice cream molds, inkwells, toothbrushes, cameras, dishes, jasperware and garters men wore to hold up their socks. There was even a Kewpie brand of toilet paper.
There were 17 factories in Germany alone and 30 altogether that produced Kewpie dolls and products to keep up with demand.
When World War I started, it became impractical to import dolls from Germany, and David O’Neill said American companies often refused to sell German-made products.
That meant factories in places such as England, France, Japan and the United States worked harder to keep up with demand.
The dolls even influenced fashion. O’Neill said many women in their teens began shaving their eyebrows into dots to imitate the Kewpie look.
With the dolls at their height of popularity, O’Neill often used Kewpies to promote awareness of issues important to her.
For instance, O’Neill supported women’s suffrage, so she produced Kewpie cartoons and posters promoting a woman’s right to vote.
Her opposition to prejudice came out in a 1912 storybook in which Kewpies come to befriend a black child who was forbidden to play with the other white children. Scott said the story could be seen as risky at that time.
“She got away with it because it wasn’t preachy,” Scott said. “It was the Kewpies.”