Rose O’Neill was an illustrator from Nebraska who went to seek her fortune in New York City at age 19. She made herself a reputation as a hardworking and versatile artist, and in 1909 created the adorable little sprites that became known as Kewpies.
She often worked from Bonniebrook as the New York offices didn’t have bathrooms for women, says Linda Brewster, who has written two books on O’Neill with a third on the way. While in Bonniebrook in 1909, O’Neill would illustrate her most lasting creation: Kewpies. Adapted from the classic “cupids,” O’Neill’s smirking, cherub-like characters with rosy cheeks came about when a Ladies’ Home Journal editor asked her to create “a series of little creatures,” as O’Neill recounted in her autobiography. The editor had seen O’Neill’s drawings of cupids elsewhere and wanted something similar in the magazine.
In her autobiography, O’Neill wrote that the Kewpie is “a benevolent elf who did good deeds in a funny way.” The initial iterations of the Kewpies came with accompanying verses invented by O’Neill. “I thought about the Kewpies so much that I had a dream about them where they were all doing acrobatic pranks on the coverlet of my bed,” she wrote.
Kewpies were a sensation, and the dolls bearing their likeness were first produced in 1912. But what most people today don't know is how O’Neill used her Kewpie drawings to illustrate progressive ideas, such as racial and economic equality and, most of all, women's suffrage. Read the story of Rose O’Neill and her Kewpies at Smithsonian.