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Rose O’Neill’s unexpected feminist icons and the power of pink

The illustrator’s Kewpie dolls were supporters of votes for women. Embrace their cute pink take on suffrage in your home

colour pioneer rose o'neill
Gado Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Naked, bisque-coloured, cherubically chubby and smoothly sexless. With heads shaped like upturned radishes, rose-petal cheeks, mischievous eyes and a pair of minute wings, Kewpies are emphatically not what spring to mind when you hear words like ‘iconoclastic’ or ‘feminist’.

It is possible that they should be. Kewpies were the brain children of Rose O’Neill and would earn her the moniker ‘Queen of Cute’.

rose o'neil colour pioneer
Rose O’Neill
World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Born in 1874 in a small town in Pennsylvania, O’Neill had a poor, peripatetic childhood. She was, however, a precociously talented artist: by the age of 23 she was making a living in New York City as an illustrator for magazines, including the popular humour title Puck, where she was the only woman on staff.

rose o'neil colour pioneer
‘China Clay’, £48 for 2.5 litres of Absolute Matt Emulsion, Little Greene. (littlegreene.com)
Little Greene
rose o'neil colour pioneer
‘Satin Lining’, £27.99 for 2.5 litres of matt emulsion, ELLE Decoration by Crown. (crownpaints.co.uk)
Crown Paints

The idea for Kewpies, she later said, came to her in a dream. To her they were ‘innocent, unspoiled little souls’, who ‘do good deeds in a funny way. The world needs to laugh or at least smile more than it does.’

Whether or not this is true, we do know that by 1909 they had begun scampering across the pages of Ladies Home Journal. From there, they took over the world, becoming a 30-year craze of astounding proportions and spawning an empire of merchandise.

rose o'neill colour pioneer
‘Varese’ velvet in ’Cameo’, £75 per metre, Designers Guild (designersguild.com)
Designers Guild

In addition to magazine and newspaper illustrations, O’Neill was commissioned to include them in advertisements for products including Jell-O and mayonnaise. Discerning buyers from the late 1910s to the early 1940s could pick up everything from Kewpie table lamps and salt-and-pepper shakers, to dolls – some five million were made in all – and lapel pins.

This pinkish, pale army, in total, earned her an estimated $1.4 million.

rose o'neil colour pioneer
‘Kielo’ wallpaper in ’Blush’, £45 per 10.5 metre roll, Scion (sandersondesigngroup.com)

What makes them truly remarkable, given the era, is how O’Neill drafted Kewpies into the fight for women’s rights. She argued to a sceptical New York Times that female clothing was too restrictive – O’Neill herself was always defiantly corset-less. (Under the unpromising headline: ‘Leg Emancipation Women’s New Plea’, she quipped that Kewpies’ roseate nakedness meant they wouldn’t ‘have to waste a lot of energy toting their clothes’.)

Her creations appeared on posters and banners. They beat drums, wore sashes and held up signs reading: ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN!’

rose o'neil colour pioneer
‘Zeze’ tiles in ’Blossom’, £89.88 per square meter, Claybrook (claybrookstudio.com)

Is it possible these swarms of demurely pinkish pale cherubs helped shift public opinion? O’Neill certainly thought so. Kewpies, she said, became,‘a way to sell a different image of suffrage and who should support it... that it was something compatible with motherhood and nurturing.’ They may not have looked the part, but Kewpies were radicals.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration March 2021

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