Kewpie collection shows one woman's love for Hickman High School mascot
SPRINGFIELD - A Hickman High School graduate has surrounded herself with Kewpies. The dolls' trademark round eyes watch happily from every corner of the dining room.
Alice Ramey, class of '74, has been collecting Kewpies for more than 40 years. The very first was in her class ring.
She has become an expert in Kewpie lore.
Columbia High School, since renamed Hickman, adopted the Kewpie as its mascot during the 1913-1914 school year. As the story goes, a school secretary placed a Kewpie doll on the basketball court before a game in 1914.
“Columbia won the game and the doll was still standing,” Ramey said. “Columbia decided the Kewpie had brought them good luck and it has been the mascot ever since.”
Ramey said the Kewpie is a “happy little character” and is unique to Hickman.
“Anybody can be a Bulldog or a Cougar, but there’s only one Kewpie,” she said.
The Kewpie was created by cartoonist Rose O'Neill in the early 1900's. Her great nephew says the artist would often dream about her characters.
“She couldn’t get them out of her head so she had to write them down,” David O’Neill said.
Rose O’Neill got her Kewpie cartoons published in the December 1909 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. Ramey has an original copy of that issue.
Ramey's most prized possession is an original print Rose O’Neill painted of her first published cartoon. The print hangs front and center in Ramey’s dining room. It is surrounded by Kewpie figurines, dishes, salt shakers and clocks.
After Rose O'Neill got her Kewpies published in print, she turned her thoughts to creating a Kewpie doll. The original dolls were made out of bisque, an unglazed white porcelain with a matte surface and texture. It was a popular medium used in the 1900’s because it mimics smooth marble.
The dolls were manufactured in Germany. There were 12 different sizes of Kewpie dolls, from one inch to twelve inches.
According to Ramey, Rose O’Neill paid a visit to Germany to see how her dolls were being manufactured. She was unhappy with how the dolls were turning out. All of the Kewpies were hand painted. Each side-glanced eye and tiny eyelash needed to be perfect and Rose O’Neill was disappointed with the dolls’ appearances.
“She had them destroy the entire first batch of the Kewpies,” Ramey said. “She actually sat down and hand painted the first few new ones to show the artists how they were supposed to look.”
David O'Neill said the Kewpies caught on worldwide.
“A lot of the popularity stemmed from soldiers in the first World War who would bring the Kewpies overseas for good luck,” he said.
During the World War One, collectors couldn’t get any of the German-made Kewpie dolls because of a U.S. embargo on German goods.
Even now, collectors are lucky to find Kewpies that still have the heart-shaped sticker that says “KEWPIE Germany” on the front. Some of the originals even have Rose O’Neill’s last name carved into the bottom of the dolls.
There are two things a person needs to look for to know if a Kewpie is authentic. It should have blue wings on its back and it should have “starfish” hands that have all five fingers spread out like a star.
Ramey has collected every size of the original Kewpies made in Germany.
“I’ve collected everything piece by piece,” she said. “Nowadays, the only place you can really find Kewpies is on eBay.”
Ramey also adds to her collection every year at Kewpiesta, a convention held by the International Rose O’Neill Club Foundation (IROCF) in Branson, Missouri. Kewpie clubs from all over the world come for a week of workshops. They can trade and show off pieces of their collections.
It was at Kewpiesta that Ramey picked up a jar of Kewpie mayonnaise from a collector in Japan.
In the 1990’s, a company called Enesco came out with a collection of Kewpies and, over a period of about 15 years, Ramey collected every single one - 200 of them. It took Ramey five years to find the final Kewpie of the collection, one that hangs with a star dangling off of it.
Ramey loves Kewpies so much she even has Kewpies on the tombstone that will mark her grave.
The Springfield Art Museum has an exhibit of Rose O’Neill’s work that will run until August 5th.
“Before Mickey Mouse, there was the Kewpie,” the museum’s website says.
The exhibit showcases not just Rose O’Neill’s Kewpies, but all of her other illustrations, poems and art pieces, as well as her life as a women’s suffragist.
David O'Neill remembers his great aunt her as a generous woman who made sure to support her family and friends.
“It’s amazing the amount of work she put out in her lifetime,” he said. “They claim that over 6,000 of her illustrations were published.”
David O’Neill is donating a 3-and-a-half-foot tall Kewpie doll to Hickman High School in late June.