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June 25, 2024 11 mins

On this day in 1874, self-taught illustrator and Kewpie Doll creator Rose O’Neill was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and Welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show that believes there's no time like the present to
learn about the past. I'm Gabeluesier, and in this episode,
we're looking at the story of a trailblazing artist who

(00:21):
leveraged her illustrated characters to create one of the world's
first merchandising empires. The day was June twenty fifth, eighteen
seventy four. Self taught illustrator and CP doll creator Rose
O'Neill was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Her family moved

(00:45):
to rural Nebraska when she was still young, and she
spent most of her childhood drawing and playing with her
two sisters, Lee and Callista. The girl's parents, William and Alice,
encouraged their children to practice as many different art forms
as they could. O'Neill's mother was a school teacher as
well as a talented musician and actress, and her father

(01:06):
was a bookseller who loved literature and theater. The family
was poor, but thanks to William's vocation, they managed to
build an extensive home library, which O'Neill made good use of.
When teaching herself how to draw, she spent hours pouring
over photographs and engravings of Renaissance artworks and strove to

(01:26):
capture a similar level of detail in her own drawings.
At age thirteen, O'Neil won an art contest sponsored by
an Omaha newspaper, but she wasn't allowed to collect her
prize until she demonstrated her skills in person to prove
she had actually drawn her submission. The editors were shocked
that a teenage girl could be such a gifted artist,

(01:48):
which shows you just how male dominated the field of
illustration was in those days. Throughout her teens, O'Neill continued
to publish her work in regional newspapers. Then, when she
was nineteen, she moved to New York City to pursue
a career as an artist. She took her room in
a convent so she wouldn't have to live alone, and

(02:09):
some of the nuns were said to have tagged along
on her early interviews to show their moral support. O'Neill's
energetic art Nouveau style drawings turned heads right away, and
she quickly became one of the most in demand commercial
illustrators in Manhattan. Over the next five decades, her work
would appear in dozens of national magazines, including Life, Collier's,

(02:34):
Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal, just to name
a few. At first, O'Neil was encouraged by publishers to
hide her gender from the public, but the more popular
her work became, the more the industry began to embrace
the idea of a woman illustrator. One major turning point
came in eighteen ninety six, when Truth Magazine published a

(02:57):
comic strip she created called The Old Subscriber Calls. It
was the first published comic strip created by a woman,
and Truth Magazine was all too happy to doubt the fact,
dubbing her America's first female cartoonist. O'Neill's comic strips proved
so popular that the following year, she was invited to

(03:18):
join the staff of Puck, the nation's leading humor magazine.
At age twenty three, she became the first woman artist
to work there, and would remain the only one until
six years later. During this time, Puck published more than
seven hundred of her illustrations, making her one of the
most prolific and highest paid illustrators in New York regardless

(03:41):
of gender. Rose O'Neill eventually parted ways with Puck and
went back to freelancing for the nation's top magazines. Her
illustrations graced the covers of sixty publications, and she also
created illustrations for the ad campaigns of companies like Procter
and Gamble, Hullgar eight, Paul molliff an Edison phonograph. She

(04:03):
published written work during this time as well, mostly poetry
and short stories, some of which she illustrated herself. O'Neil
also had two brief marriages while working in New York,
the first to Gray Latham in eighteen ninety six and
the second to Harry Leon Wilson in nineteen oh two.
She was single again by nineteen oh seven and chose

(04:26):
not to marry a third time. That same year, O'Neil
began developing the creation for which she's best known today,
The Cupies, loosely based on and named after Cupid, the
Roman god of love. Cupies were fanciful, cherub like characters.
They sported sidelong eyes, a wide, impish smile, in a

(04:47):
distinctive topknot hair style. O'Neil described them as quote a
sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to
teach people to be merry and kind. At the same time,
she spent about two years developing the characters and drawing short,
illustrated stories in which they did good deeds in a

(05:08):
humorous way. Finally, in nineteen o nine, the Keupies were
ready to make their world debut. They first appeared in
a comic strip of the same name, which was published
in Ladies Home Journal. The Keupies were an instant hit
and soon found their way into the pages of other periodicals,
including Good Housekeeping and Woman's Home Companion. The joyful Elfish

(05:32):
characters struck a chord with children and adults alike, and
it wasn't long before readers started writing in to voice
their demand for Cupie merchandise. The most popular request was
for a doll or figurine, so in nineteen twelve O'Neil
started working with a German porcelain company to bring her
star character into the third dimension. The first figures were

(05:55):
available in several sizes, and all of them flew off
store shelves in nineteen thirteen. Demand remained so high over
the next few years that factories in six different countries
were brought on board to help fill the orders. Other
Cupee merchandise proved just as popular, with Cupie tableware, stationary fabrics,

(06:16):
and other trinkets selling out across the country. The Keupie
doll also had international appeal, with the fads spreading across Europe, Australia,
and even Japan. Later versions of the doll, some made
from cloth, some from plastic, were among the first mass
marketed toys in America, as well as the first to
be distributed worldwide. As a result, the Keupie became the

(06:40):
most widely known cartoon character in the world until the
arrival of Mickey Mouse more than a decade later. The
success of the Cupie Doll made O'Neal a fortune, as
she had wisely held on to the US trademark and copyrights.
In the doll's heyday, she earned an estimated one point
five million dollars from sales, the equivalent of nearly fifty

(07:03):
million dollars in today's money. Meanwhile, O'Neil continued to draw
and write professionally. She provided illustrations for national magazines, newspapers,
and books, and also wrote several novels and books of
poetry of her own. Of course, She drew plenty more
cupies too, including as part of ad campaigns for products

(07:24):
such as Jello and Kellogg's Cornflakes. O'Neil also wrote several
children's books featuring the cupies and continued to draw them
in comic strips as well. In addition to being a
reliable money maker, the cupies also served as a vehicle
for O'Neill's commentary on social issues. Through the various good
deeds they performed, the characters championed racial equality and advocated

(07:47):
for the poor. They also echoed the artist's support for
the fight for women's right to vote. Starting in nineteen fifteen,
O'Neil took an increasingly active role in the women's suffrage movement.
She attended marches, gave speeches, and illustrated posters for her
fellow activists, some of which featured the Kupies. Some reports

(08:07):
say she even illustrated a billboard in New York City
that showed the cupies marching in line for women's right
to vote, and in nineteen fourteen, there was a rally
in Nashville where hundreds of rubber cupie dolls dressed in
suffrage sashes were dropped from a plane onto the crowd below.
Don't worry, though, they were all wearing tiny parachutes. After

(08:29):
helping women win the vote in nineteen twenty, O'Neil gave
the cupies a break and set her sights on becoming
a fine artist rather than a commercial one. She studied
in Europe, including under the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin, and
created a series of drawing, sculptures and paintings which she
labeled her Sweet Monster Art. It was an apt description too,

(08:51):
as these experimental works were chock full of mythical animal
like figures, strange poses, and surrealistic scenes. O'Neill's Monsters were
exhibited by galleries and museums throughout Western Europe, as well
as by the Society of Illustrators in New York, where
she was elected as the group's first female fellow. O'Neill's

(09:14):
fortune allowed her to live extravagantly for much of her life.
She traveled extensively and owned property in three different states
plus Italy. That said, the artist didn't spend all her
wealth on herself. Far from it. By all accounts, she
was exceedingly generous with her family and friends, and would
routinely give money to struggling artists whom she believed in,

(09:36):
as well as to fans who wrote to her in distress.
On one occasion, she was even said to have paid
for every resident of Branson, Missouri, to be immunized against
smallpox wherever her money went, though it was just about
all gone by the late nineteen thirties. The qpi's craze
had finally ended, and photography, rather than illustration, was now

(09:58):
the medium of choice for newspapers and magazines. This prompted
O'Neil to retire to her family's Bonniebrook estate in Missouri,
which had served as a favorite retreat of hers throughout
her career. There among family and friends, Rose O'Neill passed
away on April sixth, nineteen forty four, at the age
of sixty nine. Nearly a century later. The story of

(10:22):
O'Neill's life and her work continue to influence and inspire
new artists. Her beloved cubies still pop up from time
to time too, including on the bottle of the best
selling mayonnaise brand in Japan, the highly acclaimed Cubie Mayonnaise.
It's an unusual legacy, to be sure, but given O'Neill's
personal philosophy. I bet she would approve, as she counseled

(10:46):
in her autobiography quote, do good deeds in a funny way.
The world needs to laugh, or at least smile, more
than it does. I'm Gabe blues Yay, and hopefully you
now know a little more about history today than you
did yesterday. If you'd like to keep up with the show,

(11:09):
you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at
TDI HC Show, and if you have any comments or suggestions,
feel free to send them my way by writing to
This Day at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to kazb Bias
for producing the show, and thanks to you for listening.
I'll see you back here again tomorrow for another day

(11:30):
in History class.

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