September is the anniversary of some personal milestones for me—my birthday, my first-ever post-college full-time job, deaths of my parents, the Word Trade Center attack—but it’s also the month that honors the arrival of a doll that is often dismissed and overlooked. I’m chatting about the Kewpie doll. We all know them, and, most likely, if you’ve ever attended a carnival or a state fair, you might have won one or two during your windmill pitching attempts at knocking over a row of milk bottles.
The Kewpie (as a doll) emerged in September 1912—one hundred years ago. In all of the decades that have followed, it has managed to attain its wide-eyed, small-nosed, smirking-lipped appeal.
Created by illustrator Rose O’Neill as a bit of comical artwork that appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, the Kewpies were a hit when they arrived in 1909. Three years later, and they were available to be purchased in bisque versions. In 1913, they were able to be scooped up in celluloid treatments.
After World War II, Kewpies were made by Effanbee in hard-plastic, and their popularity continued to thrive.
Nowadays, Kewpies are sometimes considered a bit of nostalgic fluff. Because of their amusement park pedigree, some people look down on them. Honestly, they treat this doll as if it is a bit of carny hokum. Because it was a doll that could be won—though not easily won, if you have a pitching arm like me—it seemed not to have any value. It was taken for granted or denigrated when written about. The Kewpie, which was a tribute to Cupid, the god of love, has (sadly) been dissed more often than kissed by contemporary jaded collectors.
That’s why it is so heartwarming that the Kewpie is (hopefully) gaining new admirers with its manufacturing by Charisma. Billed as “An American Treasure,” that tagline certainly rings true about this doll with the devilish demeanor and angelic, cherubic cheeks (http://collectibledolls.charismabrands.com/Products_All.aspx?CatID=202&cs=k).
The new version of Kewpie comes in its “au naturel” state—sans vestments—as well as attired in outfits that are cute and charming, heroic and unexpected.
Charisma Brand has Kewpies that are clad as firemen and farmers, sailors and police officers, brides and grooms, flowers and witches! It is truly a bouquet of imagination and delights.
As the country continues to evolve and spin forward at ever-accelerating rates—there seems to be a new Apple phone launched every other week, and don’t get me started on the variety of Kindles and NOOKS—the lure of the Kewpie might fall to the wayside.
I’m hoping that the same way that Raggedy Ann and Andy seem to always avoid being hurled into history’s rag bin, the Kewpie will continue to flourish as a conduit to a much simpler and more innocent time.
Yes, it does seem rather contradictory: an undressed gadfly being emblematic of a more wholesome period, but it’s true. The Kewpie, which originated before World War I, smacks of a time when sweethearts might steal a peck on the cheek or a fleeting kiss on the lips. It is a messenger from an era of ragtime, rumble seats, and wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.
It’s true that the America of the Kewpie’s origin bears only a passing resemblance to today’s world—for many of us, it would be an America that is totally unrecognizable. (We’re talking before feminism, civil rights, relaxed social mores, and other lifestyles that we all participate in and take for granted.) However, during a month that is steeped in so much personal sadness for me, as well as national mourning on 9/11, the Kewpies are a great way to see how America has stood the tests of time for more than 100 years.
Perhaps in another hundred years, the Kewpies will still be around. Of course, by then, they will be holograms and able to float and flit through the air. But, hopefully, even in this brave new world rendering, they will continue to display a healthy amount of mischief, good humor, and ripening romance.
Oh, and that adorable cresting-wave on top of the head, of course! It’s a hairstyle that defies gravity and logic. Just one more reason why the Kewpies are indeed an American treasure.