Creepy/Cute - A Kewpie Quickie
image: Rose O’Neill, creator of Kewpie dolls
As summer begins to die down, the mornings start to have a chilled edge that burns off in the afternoon sun and the evenings, almost imperceptibly, are growing darker, earlier - I am always reminded of the county fairs that start opening up in conjunction with upcoming autumn season. It’s hard to say why this is because honestly I think I’ve only been to one such fair in my entire life. I think I can probably pin this association on stories in books and an active imagination.
And though I’ve never actually won anything on the fairgrounds in the way of prizes from those impossible-to-win games ….autumn and fairgrounds always bring to mind those odd little cherub cheeked, unblinking Kewpie dolls that (I imagine) fellows obtain for their girlfriends when they manage to shoot a bullseye or knock down a bottle or whatever.
Display of the Ubiquitous, Popular Kewpie Dolls as They Stand Attached to Canary Topped Cane Sticks by Alfred Eisenstaedt
Though not personally creeped out by these strange, small figures, I know that some people can’t even stand the sight of them, or to be in the same room with them. Curious about their origins and creator, I thought I might share the information that I found when I went digging.
The Kewpie doll, or the idea of them, had been fermenting in the creative mind Rose O’Neil,since childhood. In an interview in Hobbies Magazine Rose recalled, “The idea grew from a baby brother when I was a little girl. I made drawings of him while I played with him. All his little looks and gestures came out later in the Kewpie.”
Rose, also an illustrator for magazines and advertisements, as well as an author, elaborated further that “In illustrating love stories I had a way of making decorative head and tail pieces with Cupids. Edward Bok of the Ladies’ Home Journal cut out a number of these and sent them to me. He asked me if I could make a series of the little creatures and said that he would find someone to make accompanying verses. I replied that I would make the verses up myself and wrote him an illustrated letter in which I created the character of the Kewpie. I invented the name for little Cupid, spelling it with a K because it seemed funnier. ”
Rose’s biography, parts of which read almost like a fairytale, can be read at the Bonniebrook Historical Society website.
Rose was a self taught illustrator and though she knew little about commercial art, she entered the profession at a time when most illustrators were male. During her early years in New York, Rose illustrated for such periodicals as Harper’s, Life, Broadway Life, Cosmopolitan, and Colliers. Her work became highly recognizable and advertising executives took notice, the appeal perhaps due to a combination of her sense of humor and her romantic nature. She did in the neighborhood of 100 illustrations for Jell-O, her most recognizable advertising account, from 1909 to 1922.
“Well, when I tell you that I haven’t time to be a housewife and have never in my life made up anything eatable except Jell-O, you will know that I must appreciate the advantages offered by the ‘easy Jell-O way.’”
“Signs”, a cartoon for Puck by Rose O’Neill, 1904.
Ethel: “He acts this way. He gazes at me tenderly, is buoyant when I am near him, pines when I neglect him. Now, what does that signify?”
Her mother: “That he’s a mighty good actor, Ethel.”
“I am in love with magic and monsters,
and the drama of form emerging from the formless.”
- Rose O’Neill
In searching out information on the books she had written (in addition to illustration), I came across an intriguing mention of one of her adult titles, “The Goblin Woman”. As goblins are generally of more interest to me than Kewpies, I waskeen to learn more! Unfortunately, other than listings on a few auction sites, there is not much information to be had on this book. Persistence does pay off though, and I stumbled across It Goes On The Shelf , a site maintained by Ned Brooks, who notes with regard to The Goblin Woman “…There doesn’t seem to be any real goblin”. Although I found that assertion to be mildly disappointing, I wrote to Ned to see if he could share any further info about the book. Ned kindly supplied a synopsis for me, as follows:
“The book has four frontispieces of the main characters, Giulia, Windsor, Tredegar, Jackie, Rosemary, and Helga - pencil drawings of heads, printed in red ink. The only other art is chapter headings in black - the one for the “Prelude” looks rather like Cthulhu, and so does the one for Ch.1. But while the setting is eerie and the language is abused to the point of confusion, the fantasy element seems mostly psychological. The story opens with “the goblin” coming to a dinner party. It becomes clear on the first page that the “goblin” is the woman Helga, who has just moved into The River House, which indeed sits right at the river’s edge, and has been invited to the dinner party. Giulia says that Helga “looks not like anything you ever saw” - and yet the reader has already seen the author’s drawing of Helga - quite normal looking.
Helga is a lapsed Catholic who inherited the house from her uncle Llewellyn Tredegar, who got a portrait even though he is already dead as the story opens - he does look old. On p.7 we learn why Helga is referred to as a “goblin” - she and her sister had lived in the River House at the age of 10-11 and as there was no woman there to see to their clothes, went about held together with safety pins. Oddly enough, as they await the arrival of Helga, one of them refers to her as “Mrs. Tredegar”, which seems odd. Helga Tredegar, from their gossip, must be about 25. Giulia reports Helga as saying that she is “…a hyena and lives entirely upon the dead”. The dialog is full of such bizarre hyperbole.
On p.11 we are told that Helga is “Mrs. Tredegar” because she married her uncle! Not Llewellyn, her father’s older brother, but Owen Tredegar, her father’s younger brother. I would have thought that illegal most places. Helga’s mother was Danish and the Tredegars are Welsh. Just where the action takes place is unclear - the Prelude refers to it as an “Aryan place”. The other characters all have anglo surnames. On p.12 we are told that Helga was only 12 when she married her uncle Owen! Wherever they are, the house they are in is said to have been in the family for 200 years - perhaps these are British loonies. By the end of Ch.1, Helga has not arrived for the dinner party.
That should give you some idea of this demented soap opera. Skipping to the end, I see that Helga and Windsor seem to be about to live happily ever after. The goblin is as metaphorical as the hyena. There are real hyenas - I just heard from a friend in Ethiopia who says they prowl the alleys of the old city Harar. What I meant by “no real goblin” was that the story does not contain any goblin that is actually supernatural or fantastical.”
Thank you, Ned, for indulging me! And Playing Fields readers… if you have gotten this far in reading what was supposed to be a quick little post - I thank you as well!