Comics Herstory: Rose O’Neill
On September 19, 1896, Rose O’Neill’s cartoon strip “The Old Subscriber Calls” appeared in Truth magazine. This was a momentous occasion, as it marked the first publication of a comic strip written by a woman.
O’Neill was a self-taught illustrator, and got her start freelancing as a teenager for periodicals. She moved to New York in hopes of better establishing her career and sold cartoons and illustrations to various magazines, including Truth, Puck, and Cosmopolitan. In 1909, O’Neill created Kewpie, a cartoon featuring cherubic characters who “teach people to be merry and kind at the same time.” Kewpie was published in Ladies’ Home Journal and gained enormous popularity almost immediately. inspiring O’Neill to illustrate paper dolls called Kewpie Kutouts, and J.D. Kestner, a German toy company, to produce ceramic Kewpie dolls.
In 1917, O’Neill began using Kewpie for political purposes. The Kewpie Korner Kewpiegram was a one-panel cartoon that usually discussed a controversial topic, such as featuring pro-women’s rights messages. O’Neill was an ardent supporter of women’s rights and focused many of her artistic efforts into promoting suffrage. Few suffrage posters remain today, though many examples of her work remain. Many of O’Neill’s posters, postcards, and cartoons were preserved and are on display in the art gallery and in the Kewpie Museum, both located at her Ozark mansion, Bonniebrook.
Rose O’Neill was a versatile artist, and, in addition to cartooning and drawing, sculpted and painted. In her later life, she taught art workshops and continued her activism in women’s rights.
O’Neill’s legacy is an important one. She laid the foundation for women in cartooning by breaking into an industry that decidedly favored men. Her cartoons were an important factor in bringing awareness to women’s rights, and she headed an era in which women would use political cartoons to their full purpose in the suffrage movement.