Even though they’re baby, Kewpies have been around for over 100 years. The aforementioned “Queen of Cute” Rose O’Neill was an illustrator and writer from the early 20th century and, in our opinions, a true badass.
From 1897-1903 she was the only woman on an all-male staff at a comedy magazine called Puck, but she really gained her fame and fortune when she started illustrating Kewpies, which were first published in a Ladies Home Journal in 1909. O’Neill’s little creatures were inspired both physically and nominally by Cupid: rosy cheeks, chubby bodies, and adorned with little angel wings. And if you’re gonna pass your first exam in Kewpie 101, you better know that Kewpies are genderless elves, as written on age-old graphics penned by O’Neill herself: “Kewpie Elves are Happy Spirits neither girl or boy”.
Cute as they were, these cherubic little creatures weren’t just pretty faces – they came with a cause. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Kewpies were often depicted “mocking elitist middle-class reformers, supporting racial equality, and advocating for the poor…[and] the fight for women’s right to vote.” O'Neill used them as a powerfully cute force to pioneer a form of subtle reactionary politics. Susan Scott, president at the Bonniebrook Historical Society, an educational NPO erected in Rose O'Neill's honor, explained why: "What was neat was that she was able to use this popular character for suffrage, and it got people’s attention. Some people would go, ‘How could she use the Kewpie for suffrage? Why is she getting them involved in politics?’ And then other people just really didn’t even notice. They thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute? Votes for women. Oh, OK.’”³ From the time of their first publication, Kewpies were inextricably (and to some, inexplicably) connected to ideas of sociopolitical advocacy.
Feminists in O’Neill’s time fought for the freedom to wear what they wanted; practices like showing your legs and not wearing a corset were considered controversial. O’Neill, who never wore a corset herself, once joked to the New York Times that Kewpies didn’t need to “waste a lot of energy toting their clothes”² since they were always naked.
By 1913, O’Neill patented the iconic kewpie doll, which was produced by a German toy distributor. Legend has it that upon seeing the preliminary design, she and her sister traveled to Germany to “destroy the molds”⁴ and show them how to make the dolls the right way. The dolls now bore the likeness of O’Neill’s beloved cartoon in bisque porcelain form. It's no wonder that once they were turned into tangible items, Kewpies became hot commodities all across the globe.
Sadly, during the 1930s, O’Neill’s fortune dissipated due to the effects of the Great Depression combined with her infamous sense of generosity (she frequently gave money away to family, friends, adorers…virtually any hand outreached¹). On top of that, the public began to favor realism in the form of photographs over the campy world of illustrations and cartoons. Although she enjoyed a successful career for years, and the ability to make a political impact through her art, Rose O’Neill would never know just how long-lasting a legacy her adorable Kewpies would have. For example, this design by one of our fav artists on insta @the.tattoodler is an adaptation of O’Neill's suffragette illustration, interpreting Kewpies in the same way O'Neill did in her time: dedicating them to a key issue. This version shows support for today’s BLM movement, proving that Kewpies are still fighting for equality and a better tomorrow.
More than 100 years after their inception, the world is still infatuated with Kewpies and their contagious merriment. Here are just a few of the ways Kewpies have made their way into the current landscape:
Almost immediately after Rose O’Neill started publishing her Kewpie cartoons, people were getting them tatted. Although O’Neill’s Kewpies were usually in the nude, tattoo artists got creative in the 1920s, depicting Kewpies “dressed as firemen, bellboys, cowboys, musicians and American and European soldiers.”⁵
Artists like Percy Waters and Milton Zeis were among those tattooing Kewpies during O’Neill’s time⁶. It seems like the tattoo community kept the spirit of the Kewpie alive for a while after the general public had moved on. During the 1960s, the popularity of the Kewpie tattoo started to decline, and some say Mike Malone, who tattooed from the 70s into the early 2000s, single-handedly revived the Kewpie tattoo.
Here are some our favorite Kewpie tattoo designs we've come across by some incredibly talented artists that all manage to put their original spin on the classic Kewpie:
hex girl loves Kewpie tattoos so much that her first Kewpie logo design was inspired by this concept..only the Kewpie was the one getting inked. We also stumbled across a TikTok account @kewpietattoo that tattoos actual Kewpie dolls!
It was so perfect that we even reached out to the artist to try to get a piece commissioned of the hex girl tattooed devil Kewpie. Fingers crossed we can bring devil Kewpie to life one day!
Kewpie’s modern cousins, Sonny Angels, were born in 2004 in Japan. These Kewpie-inspired mini figures have the same angelic faces as their predecessors and sport the same ol’ signature topknot. Except they wear “all sorts of headgear”⁷ upon their cute little heads, so it feels almost…wrong when you actually do catch a glimpse of one with their hair exposed. Sonny Angels come in blind-box packaging to ramp up the endorphin rush to a maximum high, with themes ranging from fruits and animals to holidays and planets. Similar to how tattoo artists adapt the Kewpie canvas into their own style, each and every Sonny Angel has its own special hat or outfit, and at this point there are over 650 variations (be ready to swoon if you go on to browse the Sonny Angel site).
We incorporated the figurines from the yearly limited edition Christmas Series, Christmas Presents from Sonny Angel (2020), into our night before hexmas blog last year. (With the blind-box packaging, we were lucky enough to get all of the members of the series PLUS one of the secret additional ones that aren't even listed on the site, talk about a rush! We were only one member shy of the entire 2020 Christmas series, and we will forever have to wonder what could've been...)
The company that created the iconic Japanese Kewpie mayo started in 1919, not long after the original Kewpie drawings were published. Back then it was called Shokuhin Kogyo Co., Ltd. Toichiro Nakashima, one of the food processing company’s directors, is credited with starting production of Kewpie Mayonnaise
Kewpie was Japan’s first mayonnaise. Nakashima spent time in the US and UK in the 1910s where he was first introduced to the condiment. After a large earthquake hit Japan, Nakashima noticed a growing trend of westernization in the country, and took the opportunity to start producing mayonnaise. Kewpie mayo was launched in 1925, only 12 years after O’Neill patented her Kewpie dolls.
According to the company’s website, Kewpie Mayonnaise is “a highly nutritious mayonnaise made using only egg yolks,” which was inspired by “Nakashima’s desire to help improve the physiques and health of Japanese people by making delicious, nutritious mayonnaise so widely available that it became a daily necessity.”⁸
In line with their desire to help the public, in 1962 the company started broadcasting Kewpie’s Three Minute Cooking on TV, “inspired by a desire to help with planning daily meals by giving cooking tips in a format similar to weather forecast.”⁸ We couldn’t find any clips of the series online, but we were able to find a video of the intro and outro (which we’re obsessed with) on YouTube:
It’s not completely clear exactly why they ended up using the Kewpie as their logo, but it somehow just makes sense given Japan’s long-standing fascination with kawaii. At this point, mayonnaise is synonymous with Kewpie in Japan, and chefs around the world enjoy it for its distinctive flavor.
Hickman High School Kewpie Mascot
A high school football team in Columbia, Missouri has what is possibly the most creepy-cute mascot of all time. That’s right - it’s a Kewpie! The Hickman High School football team adopted the Kewpie as their mascot only five years after O’Neill’s original illustrations were published and it remains to this day. Although having a mascot that's seemingly perceived as a naked baby certainly subjects them to ridicule from opposing teams, the Hickman football team totes their Kewpie mascot loud and proud. To Hickman athletes current and past, the Kewpie represents individuality, and according to an article by the Columbia Missourian, “these people ooze Kewpie pride, even if they do not completely understand the name or its origins.”⁹
Disclaimer: they do indeed force the Kewpie to waste energy toting a football uniform to cover up, Rose O'Neill would be ashamed!
Source: @KewpAthletics on Twitter
Kewpie is Forever
In our humble opinions, Kewpies have withstood the test of time because they're basically these precious and darling little blank canvases that are just begging to be turned into something new and unique. And the best part about them: there's room for so much versatility. You can take them anywhere creatively, stylistically, thematically...the possibilities are endless! No matter what, even when left as is, they're charming and endearing every time.
We truly loved the Smithsonian Magazine article for it's hard-to-find facts about Rose O'Neill as an activist and personal philanthropist––okay, and maybe because of their super cute anecdotal intro about when Kewpies were released from a plane bearing mini parachutes and "Vote for Women" sashes. Like, come on!––but we couldn't help but hate seeing them call Kewpies a "fad." Kewpies are eternal and the ever-adaptable plethora of messages they bear are here to stay. As a 1913 reader wrote to Woman's Home Companion: "Long live Rose O'Neil!"³ And we couldn't agree more. Long live Rose O'Neill! Long live Kewpie!
Written by Joely Phenes and Stephanie Wrobleski
- Trout, Carlynn. “Rose O'Neill.” Historic Missourians, n.d. https://historicmissourians.shsmo.org/rose-oneill.
St Clair, Kassia. “Rose O’Neill’s Unexpected Feminist Icons and the Power of Pink.” Elle Decoration, March 3, 2021. https://www.elledecoration.co.uk/decorating/a35550691/rose-oneill-pink-feminism/.
Solomon, Adina. “The Prolific Illustrator Behind Kewpies Used Her Cartoons for Women’s Rights.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 15, 2018 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/prolific-illustrator-behind-kewpies-used-her-cartoons-womens-rights-180968497/
Sain, Cliff. “Artist’s dolls sprouted wings 100 years ago.” Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. September 11, 2012. https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2012/sep/11/artists-dolls-sprouted-wings-100-years-ag-20120911/.
“Kewpie Dolls.” Tattoo Archive, Published 2003, Updated 2017. https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/kewpie_dolls.php
“Going Strong Since 1910: Kewpie Doll Tattoos.” Tattodo, September 19, 2018. https://www.tattoodo.com/articles/going-strong-since-1910-kewpie-doll-tattoos-14196.
“About.” Sonny Angel - Official Site, Updated 2018. https://www.sonnyangel.com/en/about/.
“Kewpie’s Progress and Future.” Kewpie, n.d. https://www.kewpie.com/en/history.
Selig, Mark. “100 YEARS OF KEWPIES: Hickman High School embraces unusual mascot.” Columbia Missourian, October 9, 2014. https://www.columbiamissourian.com/sports/100-years-of-kewpies-hickman-high-school-embraces-unusual-mascot/article_d87e14f6-b0a3-547a-ac5c-53a2b9739b1a.html