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Guide to the Rose O'Neill Collection
1900-1953, undated
 PR 369

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Larry Weimer

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on October 04, 2018
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Biographical / Historical

Rose Cecil O'Neill (1874-1944) was an American artist, author and poet perhaps best known for her creation in 1909 of the cartoon character Kewpies. O'Neill was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Nebraska. In her youth she took an avid and successful interest in drawing; as a teenager she worked as an illustrator for Omaha newspapers. Recognizing her talent and potential, O'Neill's father took her to New York City in 1893, where she joined the staff of Puck. O'Neill's father returned to the Midwest, settling in the Ozarks of Missouri on a property he called Bonniebrook. O'Neill would visit Bonniebrook often over the years, eventually purchasing it and living the last years of her life there.

Through the first decade of the 1900s, O'Neill continued to work as an illustrator, including for a novel of her own and for those of her second husband, Harry Leon Wilson, an assistant editor at Puck (they married in 1902 and divorced in 1907). In 1909, O'Neill's Kewpie creation premiered in a comic strip in Ladies' Home Journal, later appearing in Good Housekeeping and elsewhere. In 1912 a German firm began manufacturing Kewpie dolls, and O'Neill traveled to Europe to oversee production. The Kewpie success made her a millionaire. Among the properties she purchased with her earnings was an apartment on Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, consistent with her emerging reputation as a bohemian and suffragist.

Over time, the nature of O'Neill's work shifted, becoming more experimental. She returned to Europe, staying in Paris from 1921 to 1926. Her work was exhibited in Paris in 1921 and at the Wildenstein Galleries in New York in 1922. By the late 1920s, though, she had returned to the United States. With the Kewpie craze faded, tastes in commercial art shifting, and the impact of the Great Depression, O'Neill's fortune slowly disappeared and by the late 1930s she had returned permanently to Missouri, where she died of heart failure in 1944.

(The above was based largely on O'Neill's Wikipedia entry.)