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Rose O’Neill: Artist, Suffragist, & Queen of the Kewpies

Rose Cecil O’Neill was an American artist, cartoonist, illustrator, and author whose career shot to stardom at the early age of thirteen when she won a drawing prize from her hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald. She eventually became the highest-paid and most famous woman in the field of commercial illustration, introducing the world to a series of characters that would take on a life of their own, entering the American lexicon as a symbol of something far beyond their original source. An iconoclast in every sense of the word, it is no surprise that during O’Neill’s most productive years, she made her home in Greenwich Village, at 62 Washington Square South. There while living with her sister, Callista, she became an instrumental part of the women’s suffrage movement.

Rose O’Neill with her sister Callista

O’Neill was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on June 25, 1874.  Her family relocated by covered wagon to rural Nebraska and lived there during her early years. Despite living in a somewhat isolated and rural community, her parents’ household was a progressive and artistic one. Rose and her siblings were strongly encouraged in the arts; they practiced reciting Shakespeare, read the classics, and frequently attended theatrical performances. At just 18, with no formal art education, she had her drawings published in newspapers and magazines throughout the Midwest. In 1892 she moved to New York with hopes of launching a career as an artist. 

Rose O’Neill

Initially encouraged by publishers to hide her gender from the public, by 1896 O’Neill was hailed “America’s First Female Cartoonist” by Truth Magazine for her comic strip “The Old Subscriber Calls.” She made history by becoming the first female cartoonist to publish a comic strip in America. The following year she joined the staff of Puck magazine and was the only woman working there until 1903.

O’Neill very quickly became a much sought-after cartoonist, illustrator, poet, and short-story writer.  Her works appeared in over fifty magazines, while her illustrations graced the cover of sixty national publications. Proctor & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive, and Edison Phonograph, among many other companies, hired O’Neill to create illustrations for advertising campaigns. It was in this stage of her career that she invented what may be her most lasting creation, whose fame far surpasses that of their originator — the “Kewpie” characters.

An ad for Jello Dessert by Rose O’Neill

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 served as a vehicle from which she could comment on social issues of import such as women’s rights, discrimination, and wealth inequality. Through her art and public service, O’Neill championed the down-trodden—a condition she was all too familiar with, having suffered poverty as a child.

While Rose O’Neill’s name might not be immediately associated with the suffrage movement, her illustrations certainly are. Known to the National Women’s Suffrage Association in New York City as a “Suffrage Artist,” O’Neill lent her creative abilities to the cause of advancing women’s rights. O’Neill’s Kewpies featured prominently in the suffrage campaign. The postcards shown below were printed by the Campbell Art Co. and circulated by the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co.

Kewpies for Suffrage
Kewpie postcard by Rose O’Neill

O’Neill garnered countless honors, including being selected into the prestigious Société des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1906, and becoming the first woman elected as a Fellow of the New York Society of Illustrators. The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in NYC inducted O’Neill in 1999. As a philanthropist, she focused on work meant to lift children out of poverty.

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