BROWNIES & KEWPIES
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Displaying Palmer Cox’s “Brownies” and Rose O'Neill’s “Kewpies” together, is purely arbitrary. They ended up in the same showcase, simply because I was running out of space, and didn’t have enough images of either to merit their own case. Nevertheless, these two divergent creations have some things in common. They both represent the very earliest successes in Licensing and Merchandising. The Brownies were created before the Turn of the Century, by Palmer Cox, an illustrator born in Canada. They became the first Comic Characters to lend their faces to a variety of licensed products. The best known of these, being the Kodak “Brownie Camera”. And Rose O'Neill a hugely talented artist, who led a fabulous life, alluded to in the song and movie, “Rose of Washington Square,” created the first hugely popular dolls in history, the Kewpies. At one point, she was the highest paid woman illustrator in America.
There is a footnote to her story, or one might better say a parallel history that has always been of great interest to me. And that is the story of Joseph Kallus. So many of the dolls and figurines he made are exquisite works of art. The Comic Character images that he not only sculpted, but manufactured as the owner of the “Cameo Doll Factory” were pose-able sculptures that sold in vast quantities to the children of America, for just a dollar.
The Kewpies were perhaps only a small part of Rose O'Neill’s body of work, which ranged from magazine and book illustration to painting and sculpture, but Kewpies are the creation for which she will always be remembered. They first appeared in the pages of Good House Keeping Magazine and other early publications.
In 1912 George Borgfeldt & Company was looking for an artist to render Rose O'Neill’s Kewpies in the form of figurines and other products that were to be manufactured in Germany, and imported for the American Market. They hired a 17 year old art student from Pratt institute (my alma mater, too) named, Joseph Kallus. The rest is history, which you can read in fascinating detail by clicking the links above.
Over the years, I have seen many Kewpie figurines that simply took my breath away. On the other hand, I saw no need to acquire or collect these. The element of discovery was simply not there for me. They had been so thoroughly collected and preserved by many who came before me, all ladies, naturally. And whatever way you look at it, Kewpies are a girls thing. Nonetheless, a few Kewpies came my way that I could not resist.
The first is this, already seen in the above showcase. He or she deserves a portrait of their own. I picked this Kewpie up, quite literally, at a run-of-the-mill toy show held at a motel in New Jersey, picked it up to admire it, and, simply, couldn’t set it down. It was probably just standard issue, in its day, the early 1900s, but, 50 years later, I saw it as extraordinary. It really is a delicate masterpiece, a classic example of endowing an inanimate object with a life-force of great intensity. This image is alive. And it is a crash course in doll artistry. The eyes, looking to one side, is one way that one can convey inner life. Years later, I emulated this unconsciously and intuitively in Baby Face. Only now, in my old age, have I come to realize why.
The Kewpies have an appeal that is universal. The essence of their charm does not depend on the delicacy of fine china to be effective, although that helps. Magic also radiates from these simple celluloid dolls sweetly dressed in crepe paper. They were, perhaps, intended to decorate a wedding cake. I shot this photo of this pair, now buried in the above showcase, when I first acquired then, while living in NYC.
Many years ago I came across this imposingly large Kewpie Idol at one of the major Antique Shows. It was some sort of a display piece, a reminder of the days when such spectacular imagery was still rendered in plaster, rather than the more lightweight medium of papier mache. This monumental effigy stands nearly three feet tall, and is perched atop a pedestal, in the corner of the bell tower that doubles as a bedroom in this museum/home. Like an oasis of serenity, amidst a sea of chachkas, it is the only object in the room. Oh, on second thought, I take that back, there is a wooden Donald Duck, from a French carousel as well.
The plaster, in which this is cast, was actually tinted pink, rendering the need for paint unnecessary. Alas, the absorbent plaster in not impervious to the ravages of time, but the mottled surface, captured by the camera’s eye, is unnoticeable in person, and disappears, altogether, when on a typical day, the figure is bathed in strong sunlight. And once the sun has set, this familiar friendly spirit becomes a comforting companion, standing guard, throughout the night.
I was a bit more energetic when it comes to collecting Brownies. But I was also more selective. I got sucked into the collectors syndrome of the need for completeness, to some degree, with Mickey Mouse. But not so with Brownies. Subject matter wise, they were resistible. A World made up of only little men was not my cup of tea, and, furthermore, the art that went into Brownie products evidenced a lack of consistency. Nonetheless, on a few notable occasions, I came across a Brownie item that was extraordinary. When Brownies are good, they are very very good, and when they are not, they are just so so. Somewhere between the two extremes are the Majolica figurines, candle holders, and head shaped containers in the above showcase. I collected these when they fell my way, until I eventually realized they were never going to stop coming, repetitive variations on a theme. When it reached a point where some subtle new variation, if priced a few bucks too high, was enough to enable me to pass it by, I stopped collecting them. I realized that there was no Brownie Bill of Rights that proclaimed or guaranteed that “All Brownies Are Created Equal!”
In the other hand, I have come across a few brownie items that are amazing! We'll get to those in a minute, first a couple of very minor things that strike me as just OK to extremely pleasing. This printer set, for instance, is just OK. The sort of thing I would pick up when a show I traveled to was not great. This was a consolation prize.
I really like this colorful cigar box Brownies on the outside, and inside, a rather spectacular label. I keep these small colorful books of decals inside the box.
Here is a set, in which a child has applied the decals to small pieces of paper and cut them out, so that the complex drawings can be viewed. This is going to require a bit of fancy scanning, but I think it may be worth it. A lot of effort and artwork went into creating these preciously minute little items, artwork that is hidden, unless it’s transferred onto something else.
This trio of Candy Containers, Is much more exciting. I watched, sadly, as a guy I didn’t know bought then right under my nose at Brimfield. Three years later he sold them to me. Obviously, there was a whole set of these. I am glad to have at least these three. In front of them is a wonderful pair of Brownie wrestlers, or are they dancers, or maybe acrobats? What do you think? I have seen similar toys in which the figures were intended to represent all three activities. At any rate, they’re Great!
I do have two absolutely extraordinary Brownie items. The first is a fabulous tapestry, or rug. I’m not sure which it is, but it is extraordinary, and extraordinarily difficult to display. I never found any place to put it. It should be hanging on the wall of a museum. It is big, 10’ feet long by 10’ feet wide, and it is woven in one piece. It depicts an ambitious Brownie scene, a crowd of Brownies involved in sports of every variety.
As there is a fringe on the top and bottom edge, and none on the sides, I’ve decided that it must have been a be a rug. Whoever owned this for its first sixty years of life must have had the same difficulty finding a place to place it as I did, over the past forty five. For it has, obviously, never been walked upon by anyone. And it is as clean and bright, on both sides, as if it were woven yesterday.
At any rate, I spent the entire day trying to get a picture of this thing. And I must say, I succeeded, admirably. After a day of moving furniture to make a space, and setting up lights, I unfolded it on the fluffy carpet, in the room below, which weighs too much to move alone, and shot it from the balcony. Then, through the magic of Photoshop, and its ability to undo the effects of perspective, I was able to recreate a view of it, head on.
Here is something I didn’t know I had. I just now discovered these, underneath the “Decacomanies” in that cigar box. They are a series of four trade cards. Viewed consecutively, they depict the elaborate process that Brownies must go through to light and smoke a cigar that they apparently find lying in the street. It requires an elaborate group effort, reminiscent of a scene from Gulliver. The process requires four steps. “Appropriation,” as they pick it up, “Preparation,” as they hoist it up, “Anticipation,” as they light it up, and finally, “Realization,” as they all line up, under police supervision, to have a puff. Judging from the “Dudes” reaction, it was worth the effort.
Last, and Best of all, is what I could believe might be the World’s Best Brownie piece. Acquiring it was an adventure, fueled by obsession and frustration. At least 25 years ago, this ad appeared in either the Maine Antiques Digest, or the Newtown Bee. It was one of those ads, in which dealers submit a photograph of an item they intend to bring to an upcoming show. I saw this and went NUTZ!
By the way, the photo in the newspaper revealed the wrong side. This amazing terra cotta monument is big and spectacular, and in some primitive, Turn of the Century way, was partially “manufactured.” The elephant and each Brownie was cast in slip clay. They are hollow inside. And then, each was posed and attached by hand to the huge hollow elephant. This method permitted and indicated that more than one were made, although, each would require a great deal of hand labor.
My overwhelming exuberance enabled me to rise to the occasion, and do an inspired restoration. Several hands and feet, and one entire figure, were missing, and had to be replaced. Did I do a good job? Suffice it to say, my friend Noel Barrett of Antiques Roadshow fame, couldn’t spot which one I made. This single Brownie item is a collection, in itself, and more than good enough for me.
So, I called the dealer up. He turned out to be a pedantic cantankerous old goat, as stubborn and irrational as a mule. As the ad indicates, he had no idea what the item he had was. He assured me it was the “Peoples March on Washington”. And there was no way he would sell it to me, or hold it for me, nor did he have the slightest idea what he wanted for it. In the process of of trying to prove myself worthy as a truly interested party, I broke one of W.C. Fields’ cardinal rules, “Never smarten up a chump” and disclosed the fact that they were Brownies. Apparently another caller had told him the same thing. He refused to believe it, anyway.
Throughout a week of negotiations on the phone, during which time, the unstated price, clearly, rose, he finally, reluctantly, agreed to hold it for me for 5 minutes after the opening of the show, which was in some woe begotten town in Maine. So, I drove all night, and there I was, among the first in line at Maine’s idea of a modern Motel, the following day. The Brownie Elephant, Thank God, wasn’t on display. It was in a cardboard box, shoved in the corner of his booth of austere and unrelated early American antiques, looking like an insignificant lump of clay. The price he came up up up with, at the end of the day, redefined the term “Not Cheap.” But I drove home, on cloud nine, all the way.
The art is absolutely Amazing, and staggering in its complexity. There are 100 Brownies, around the border, alone, and many more than that number in the scene. They are doing many things, boxing, archery, tennis, and a bicycle race, presided over by an organ grinder and his monkey. In the middle right, is an entire baseball game, complete with a diamond, and an outfield, teeming with spectators, rooting for their team. There are Brownies blowing horns, and others shooting marbles, and in the upper right hand corner, an agitated crowd appears to be engaged in shooing away stray cats! Around the inner scene, is a border of chickens, ducks, fish, cats, and rats. And in the outer border of trees, are birds, owls, squirrels, and bats. This monumental work of art is utterly Fantastic!
When you clicked on this Brownie page the scene below is not what you expected to see. Nor did I intend anything like it to be here, not yet, anyway. But the effort to clear a space, and figure out how to reach the edge of the balcony to point a camera, with glass topped cabinets in the way, was such was such a pain that while there, perched precariously, sweating profusely, and trying not to bust the glass or my derriere, I refocused the camera lens, and shot the entire scene. It does give perspective to the carpet, and what I had to do to get a photograph. Can you believe that the head-on view of the rug above was created from a shot like this?