This post was written by Nina Keen, curator of our Fall 2018 exhibition. Keen is a graduate student in the Department of English at Loyola Marymount University. Read her previous post on this exhibition, Curator Nina Keen on “Sincere and Emotional: Stories of Connection.”
When I was younger, I believed I could fly. Or rather, knew that I could. Each afternoon, standing in the grass of my backyard and gripping my cat-shaped umbrella, I waited and waited to float into the sky. Every day that I remained earthbound, did not prove I couldn’t fly. It just meant it was not the right time yet.
In researching the life and works of Rose O’Neill, I have been brought back to this childlike mindset – where magic is a part of life. Similar to me, O’Neill was fascinated with an aspect of flight herself – wings. As the artist describes in her autobiography, whenever she made a spelling error in a journal entry, O’Neill covered it with detailed and fanciful drawings of wings (68). O’Neill’s attraction to wings was congruent with the rest of her art and fairytale-like biography. Learning about the artist’s life made mine a bit more magical while working as an intern in Archives and Special Collections at the William H. Hannon Library.
Early on into my internship, my supervisor and head of special collections, Cynthia Becht, informed me that the university’s Werner von Boltenstern Collection houses postcards of Rose O’Neill’s famous character, Kewpie. I’d seen Kewpie before on blogging websites like Pinterest, and leapt at the opportunity to search for the popular figure that has been replicated so often. Cynthia further informed me that an original Kewpie postcard was probably within the holiday postcard collection. This intimidated me a bit because our holiday postcard boxes contain hundreds, if not thousands, of postcards. Nevertheless, I set off to discover the authentic Kewpie!
Before I continue, I will define Kewpie (rhymes with Snoopy) for readers who are not familiar with the figure. Kewpie, a caricatured version of Cupid, was initially composed by O’Neill as a corner illustration for love stories in Ladies Home Journal. According to the book, Kewpies and Beyond: The World of Rose O’Neill by Shelley Armitage, the journal’s editor, Edward Bok, asked O’Neill to draw Kewpies as individual characters with individual storylines in comic form after he realized the Kewpies would probably be popular with the public (42). It turned out that Bok was correct, as Kewpie acquired international popularity and accrued quite a fortune for his creator.
O’Neill, in her autobiography, The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography by Rose O’Neill, wrote that Kewpie was inspired by her experience caring for her beloved younger siblings (135). Though O’Neill has never confirmed this, I have to wonder if the angelic baby character might also have been inspired by the death of the artist’s younger brother, Edward. In her autobiography, she recalls cuddling with the baby’s body after he died and says that she felt “a sweet and curious sensation” at finding a thimble that her sister, Callista, left on Edward’s chest. Apparently, both sisters thought their little brother was beautiful even in death. Though O’Neill admits that this might seem shocking to the average person, her family, she concedes, was “outlandish” (47). Years later, O’Neill claims to have dreamt of Kewpie dancing around her bed, a sweet-looking baby that was “oddly cool” to the touch (O’Neill, 95).
I do not wish to go on at length about O’Neill’s life, as that may take away from the story of Kewpie in the library’s exhibition. But, I will mention a few things – as O’Neill’s life was quite fascinating and broke many standards of conventionality at the time and even of today. Born in 1874, much of O’Neill’s childhood was spent in Bonniebrook, Missouri in a rural home her father built and furnished with antique furniture and classic literature (O’Neill 64). It was there where she grew to have a great appreciation of strong women, exemplified through her mother who was nicknamed Meemie by her children. Rose O’Neill recalls witnessing Meemie hack the way out of the snowfall from a blizzard and save the children from being trapped in the house (O’Neill 20). O’Neill, after being raised among the arts, went on to become a successful female artist – rare at the time – and was the first female illustrator for Puck Magazine (Armitage 30). O’Neill, it might come as no surprise, was very much invested in women’s right to vote and marched and spoke at several suffrage marches (Armitage 46). The Kewpie postcard on display in my exhibition, “Sincere and Emotional: Stories of Connection“, shows Kewpie fighting for women’s suffrage. This postcard was purchased because of my interest in Kewpie and the history of feminism, and is now a part of the William H. Hannon Library’s postcard collection.
While I was discovering these intriguing facts about O’Neill’s life, I set off to find Kewpie. I worried that I would not be able to locate the intriguing character because my eyesight would become bleary after sifting through so many cards. The first day of my search, I ordered in all of the Valentine postcards. I was very optimistic that if a Cupid were anywhere, it would be here. As it turned out, there were many Cupids but not my Kewpie. That night, I dreamt about searching through the postcard boxes and coming up with nothing.
The second day, I resigned myself to being unable to discover Kewpie. That morning, I had called up two of our Christmas card boxes, whose motifs reflected the contents of Kewpie postcard images I’d seen online. I figured that, if anywhere, the little elf would be hiding in the “babies” section. I flipped through three postcards and, then on the fourth – there was Kewpie’s unmistakable grin! I couldn’t believe it. I had barely spent ten minutes on the postcards and already discovered him. Afterwards, I spend about an hour flipping through the rest of the postcards in the box; unfortunately, no other Kewpie postcards were to be found. However, there may remain other postcards depicting Kewpie in different boxes, since the postcard collection has not yet been fully processed.
Armitage wrote in Kewpies and Beyond, “For O’Neill the creative act was flight – flight of fancy, the need to break the earthbound reality of social expectations or biological ‘fact’” (178). Rose O’Neill’s unconventional and inspiring life has certainly uplifted me. By finding Rose O’Neill’s immortal, as she puts it, Kewpies in our archives at Loyola Marymount University, I have found a piece of O’Neill’s magical artwork and, thereby, rediscovered a little bit of my childhood fantasy of flight. My hope is that you will also feel happy, and perhaps a bit younger, when you view the suffragist Kewpie postcard on display in my exhibition, “Sincere and Emotional: Stories of Connection”, on the third floor of the William H. Hannon library.
O’Neill, Rose. The Story of Rose O’Neill: An Autobiography by Rose O’Neill. Edited by Miriam Formanek-Brunell, The Curators of the University of Missouri, 1997. [Request this book via LINK+]
Armitage, Shelley. Kewpies and Beyond: The World of Rose O’Neill. University Press of Mississippi, 1994. [Request this book via LINK+]