First in Their Field: Rose O’Neill

As a teenager Rose O’Neill started her career as an illustrator in New York City, eventually becoming the first women published cartoonist in the United States. 


Ethel: He acts this way. He gazes at me tenderly, is buoyant when I am near, pines when I neglect him. Now, What does that signify? Mother: That he is a mighty good actor, Ethel.

O’Neill grew up in Nebraska where she entered drawing competitions. At the age of thirteen, she won first prize in a competition sponsored by the Omaha Herald for her drawing, titled “Temptation Leading to an Abyss”. At the age of fifteen, she moved to New York to pursue her career in illustrating. She went around the city, submitting her work to various publishers, and on September 19, 1896, she became the first published American woman cartoonist when her drawings appeared in an issue of Time Magazine.


She was the highest paid female illustrator in the world during her time. O’Neill is most famous for her creation of the Kewpie Cartoons. Her fortune amassed to $1.4 million due to the extreme popularity of her cartoons.

The Kewpies made their debut in the Ladies Home Journal in 1909. She was the first illustrator to build a merchandising empire based on her work. Products based on the Kewpies included books, dolls, clothing, and household goods. For a time the Kewpies popularity rivaled that of Mickey Mouses.

The Kewpies were whimsical baby cupid like beings who appeared in comics in the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Home Companion.  They taught people to be merry and kind and the merchandise was very popular with children.


As the Great Depression hit the United States the popularity of the Kewpies fell. After thirty years of success, O’Neill’s fortune was started to take a hit as photography was replacing illustrations in magazines and newspapers.

O’Neill eventually left New York city and settled in Missouri where she spent the rest of her life with her family.

Today, merchandise based off popular characters is quite common. From action figures, movies, clothing, and home goods, nothing is off limits. Stores like Hot Topic cater to consumers who wish to buy items with their favorite characters on them and this week Comic Con will be full of vendors selling limited edition merchandise based off popular comics, movies, and TV Shows.

And it all started when a teenage girl moved to New York to follow her dreams of becoming an illustrator.

Learn about more women artists who were first in their field by exploring the Women’s Museum of California’s digital timeline

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