When an enterprising young woman named Rose O’Neill (1874–1944) dreamed up the first Kewpies nearly a century ago, she little realized her cute creations would usher in an era of cartoon character merchandise and marketing tie-ins that would become a global industry.
O’Neill, an artist and writer, started illustrating for magazines such as Collier’s and Harper’s Bazaar while still a teenager living and studying in New York City. In demand and well paid, she created the Kewpies for a feature in the December 8, 1908 issue of Ladies Home Journal. Wildly popular, the little elfin babies with round tummies and tiny blue wings soon appeared in comic strips, on cards, plates, pillows, boxes of Corn Flakes and Jell-O, and countless other products.
The first Kewpie Dolls were made of bisque (unglazed porcelain) by the J.D. Kestner Company of Watershausen, Germany, in 1913-1914. Later dolls would be made of celluloid, plaster, wood, rubber, and eventually, plastic. The dolls were a worldwide phenomenon, making O’Neill a millionaire almost overnight.