Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rose O'Neill's Birthday

The Jell-O Girl Gives A Party

Today, in honor of the birthday of Rose O'Neill, I would like to share a beautifully illustrated recipe booklet titled The Jell-O Girl Gives A Party. This charming booklet is graced page after page with shimmering dishes of Jell-O and enchanting illustrations of the Jell-O Girl as she prepares to give a party for her little friends.

Rose O'Neill; the Kewpies' Mother

Rose O'Neill; The Kewpies' Mother

Although many noted artists such as Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell and Angus MacDonald made Jell-O a household word with their colored illustrations, IMHO, none had the effect and long lasting delight as those created by Rose O'Neill. There are many resources available online that highlight the life and career of Rose O'Neill. Here I have chosen a biographical sketch prepared by Brady Smith for the Literary and Cultural Heritage Map of Pennsylvania.

Rose Cecil O'Neill was born June 25, 1874 to Asenath Smith and William O'Neill; her father, a book seller and mother a former school teacher. Throughout the early stages of her life, O'Neill possessed a divine interest in the arts. Her father encouraged her to be an actress and through both her parent's influences, she learned to appreciate Shakespeare, Chopin and others that significantly stood out among the arts. She absorbed the love of poetry from her father, who encouraged her to read books to retain knowledge that would benefit her especially as a young woman.

O'Neill began expressing herself through paintings in her adolescent years. While she attended Sacred Heart Convent, she won a prize awarded by the Omaha World-Herald, for an illustration she drew. Her family then moved to Ozark, Missouri. She stayed in Ozark for only a short time before opting to move to New York to pursue her dreams of being an artist. O'Neill enjoyed painting but could not escape her fascination with classical literature on Greek myths which later inspired her idea for the Kewpies.

In her later years, O'Neill began to sell illustrations to many of the prominent periodicals and her work appeared in such magazines as Collier's, Truth, McClure's and Harper's. Because the field was dominated by men at this time, she signed her work with her initials “C.R.O.” In 1896, O'Neill married Virginia aristocrat, Gray Latham. They lived in New York where she worked as a staff artist for Puck. While at Puck, she signed over 700 drawings with the signature O'Neill-Latham. However, the two divorced in 1901 and she left her job with Puck and returned to her home, “Bonniebrook” in Ozark, where she wrote and illustrated for several magazines.

O'Neill felt safe at BonnieBrook and while she stayed there, she received letters from longtime admirer Harry Leon Wilson who was the literary editor for Puck. When news of her divorce reached New York, Wilson traveled to BonnieBrook to ask for O'Neill's hand. In 1902, the two were married. They moved from Ozark to Connecticut each to pursue careers in writing. O'Neill wrote her first book 1904 entitled The Loves of Edwy. O'Neill wrote a total of four novels. (source)

BonnieBrook was Rose's home bound retreat. It was her "favorite place in the world." "In 1967, a week was dedicated to Rose O'Neill and a group of Kewpie collectors met in Branson, Missouri the closest town to BonnieBrook. The week was named "Kewpiesta" and evolved into a yearly convention. Every year the International Rose O'Neill Club (IROC) continues to hold a convention in Branson. In April of 2009, the Kewpiesta celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first Kewpies published in The Ladies Home Journal in December 1909.

Jell-O Illustration by Rose O'Neill

In 1909, in her 'treetop studio' Rose took an afternoon nap. While sleeping, she dreamt that small “myth-like-elf” creatures that were greatly influenced by the Greek god of love, Cupid were bouncing on her coverlet, one even sitting on her hand. When she awoke, she went immediately to her drawing board and developed the tiny images hidden in her dreams into sketches and illustrations which would form her characters. They became known as Kewpies. In December 1909, the "mother" of the Kewpie characters introduced readers of Ladies' Home Journal to "The Kewpies" in her illustrated poems. The fanciful, elf-like babies with a top-knot head, wide smile, and sidelong eyes soon became a national craze. She described them as "a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time." Around 1913 Rose O’Neill patented a doll based on her Kewpie character.

From 1912 to 1914, the Kewpie doll was an absolute craze. People were buying Kewpie books and Kewpie rattles, Kewpie soap and Kewpie dishes, Kewpie pianos and Kewpie salt-and-pepper shakers. Women began plucking their eyebrows to mimic the surprised dot brows of the little porcelain cherubs. Poet/artist Rose Cecil O'Neill made $1.5 million from the munchkin dolls, which she first invented as magazine illustrations and patented in 1913. source

Jell-O Kewpies

The cartoon was instantly famous. In 1912 a German porcelain manufacturer started making Kewpie dolls, and that year she and her sister went to Germany to show the porcelain artists how to make the dolls the way she wanted them. The dolls were sold all over the world along with a vast array of Kewpie merchandise such as tableware, fabrics, and trinkets.

Becoming known as the "Queen of Bohemian Society" O'Neill became a women's rights advocate. Her properties included Bonniebrook; an apartment in Washington Square in Greenwich Village that inspired the song Rose of Washington Square; Castle Carabas in Connecticut; and Villa Narcissus on the Isle of Capri, Italy. Considered one of the world's five most beautiful women, O'Neill made a fortune of $1.4 million, approximately $15 million).

O'Neill continued working, even at her wealthiest. Perhaps driven by the unfortunate circumstances in her life to express herself, along with the needs of her family, she delved into different types of art. She learned sculpture at the hand of Rodin (The Thinker), and had several exhibitions of her "Sweet Monsters" in Paris and the United States. She held open salons in her Washington Square apartment where poets, actors, dancers and the 'great thinkers' of her day would gather. O'Neill often continued her drawing until early morning. wikipedia

Rose O'Neill's talent did not end as an illustrator. She was also an author, poet, sculptor, actress, inventor and suffragette. She was one of the few women to achieve extraordinary financial success and professional independence in early twentieth-century American cartooning. Such wealth enabled O'Neill, with her sister, Callista, to hold salons in her Greenwich Village studio and create experimental drawings unlike the work for which she is usually known.

She also wrote and illustrated eight children's books featuring Kewpies from 1912 to 1936. Kewpie comics appeared in newspapers during those years, and O'Neill became one of the first female cartoonists in America. Ignoring publicized criticism of her association with the Women's Movement, O'Neill utilized the immense popularity of the Kewpie character to endorse and garner attention to her favorite political causes which included woman suffrage. The National Woman Suffrage Association distributed postcards and posters that utilized her Kewpie and artistic illustrations. A Los Angeles Tribune article reported, "The most celebrated of America's black-and-white artists, Rose O'Neill, creator of ‘The Kewpies,’ is an ardent suffragist and an active member of the Press and Publicity Council of New York City. source

The Great Depression hurt O'Neill's fortune. During that period she was dismayed to find that her work was no longer in demand. The Kewpie character phenomena, after 30 years of popularity, faded, and photography was replacing illustrating as a commercial vehicle. In 1937, Rose O'Neill returned to BonnieBrook permanently. By the 1940s she had lost most of her money and her beautiful homes. She continued to donate her time and pieces of artwork to the School of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, Missouri. She lectured at artist's workshops and continued to address women's groups. She remained a prominent personality in the Branson, Missouri community.

O’Neill worked industriously and financially supported her family and many fellow artists throughout her career. In the 1930s, her fortunes dwindled due to her generosity and the financial stress of a worldwide economic depression. Also, after thirty years of popularity, interest in the Kewpie character started to wane. O’Neill’s artwork—and the Kewpies—were no longer in high demand as realistic photographs replaced fanciful illustrations in magazines and newspapers.

In 1937 O’Neill retreated permanently to Missouri to live at Bonniebrook. There she wrote her memoirs with the help of her friend, the Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph. Her autobiography, published many years after her death, reveals her personal philosophy: “Do good deeds in a funny way. The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does.” She died on April 6, 1944, at the age of 70. She was buried at Bonniebrook. source

The Jell-O Girl Gives A Party

The Jell-O Girl's Message
Rose O'Neill Illustrations for Jell-O
"Do good deeds in a funny way.
The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does."
Rose O'Neill

Additional Resources: Some of the Jell-O Girl information was cited from one of my favorite advertising leaflets reference books Vintage Cookbooks and Advertising Recipe Leaflets by Sandra J. Norman & Karrie K. Andes (pages 53-58)


  1. Oh Louise this is such good stuff! I love the illustrations, I'd never heard of her before, but she had a remarkable life. Now I know what a kewpie doll is!lol!

  2. Hi Dulce,
    Thanks so much for visiting and for the kind words.

    So many associate Rose O'Neill with the Kewpie craze but you are so right. She was an extremely talented artist from a very young age and certainly made her mark on other aspects of American culture.

  3. Wonderful as usual! Am flying round quickly as things are hectic here...that chocolate Jell-O looks really good!

  4. Hi Lidian,

    Thanks for visiting & the kind words.

    I just had to include the Chocolate Jell-O recipe. I didn't even know they ever made Chocolate Jell-O. I wonder how it could be adapted? Not that I'm much of a Jell-O fan...

  5. Very interesting - I have been a fan of Jell-O since birth, but did not know this story at all. I've heard the term Kewpie, but had no idea that Jell-O and O'Neill were in the story. There is a remarkable resemblance to the Campbell Soup Kids, and perhaps they were from the same era?

  6. Hi T.W.
    I'm glad you enjoyed your visit. A quick google search reveals Grace Drayton (Gebbie) the creator of Dolly Dimples and the Campbell Soup kids was born 3 years after Rose O'Neill. She was also quite successful at an early age. There's are couple of other similarities between the two.

    Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. It never dawned on me but now that you mention it...Looks like future post fodder. THANKS!

  7. Louise, I enjoyed this post about the kewpies very much. I had read something about them in a book called "Panati's parade of fads, follies, and manias" but I learned much more about them in your post.
    I did not know about the Jell-O connection. I have found chocolate jelly recipes in many old cookbooks, but never tried it...

  8. Hi Manuela,

    Thanks so much for visiting and for the kind words.

    I was quite taken by the Chocolate Jell-O. I don't remember ever seeing it before. Let me know if you attempt a Chocolate Jell-O recipe. I'd be quite curious. I'm familiar with Panati but I think the book was curious facts or something of that nature.

  9. Did you get to enjoy any of the Branson shows while there?

  10. Hi Devona,
    Thanks so much for visiting. No, unfortunately, I did not but, thanks for sending me the link.

  11. Makes me wonder what she was thinking when she thought of making this recipe. I bet she was pretty excited when she made one successful Jell-O for the first time.
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  12. I'm not sure Rose ever made her own Jell-O recipe, Donna but, we sure did enjoy her adorable illustrations:) Thanks for visiting...


Through this wide opened gate,
none came too early,
none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise