An icon of Baltimore's pop history goes on the block today -- a Kewpie eating strawberry ice cream that has emerged as a peach on the collectibles market.
After decades in a dark basement, the artwork of a chubby, smiling baby nourished on platefuls of Hendler's ice cream will be sold at a Timonium auction house, where its presence has attracted national collecting interest.
The large lot of memorabilia includes three original Hendler Creamery Kewpies, which helped promote the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors on billboards and newspaper ads in Baltimore from 1915 through the 1960s.
The artwork was painted and signed by Rose O'Neill (1874-1944), an artist who has inspired a cult of collectors. They seek her baby Kewpies in any form, be they printed on postcards, stitched on handkerchiefs, cast as iron dime banks or made into lamp bases. Her work is the focus of a yearly convention called the Kewpie-esta.
"I would call them highly unusual because they are in full color, not her black-and-white drawings. There hasn't been a full color, large watercolor out for sale for a number of years now," said Susan Brown Nicholson, a Lisle, Ill., resident who is an art appraiser and author of "The Encyclopedia of Antique Post Cards" and "The Post Cards of Rose O'Neill." There's been talk the original pieces could fetch $5,000 or more apiece.
The Hendler Kewpie once had as much recognition in Baltimore advertising as the mustachioed Mr. Boh of National Bohemian beer and the curly-haired Koester's twins, a pair of girls whose faces graced the waxed paper wrappers on bread.
Nearly half the items in today's sale are related to the ice cream industry and the sale of the dessert at drug store soda fountains. The collection was assembled by Albert "Bud" Hendler, a Baltimore ice cream manufacturer whose father founded the firm in 1905. Many of the items include a sunshine yellow and navy blue oval proclaiming, "Hendler's ice cream -- The Velvet Kind," along with the Kewpie eating a plate of strawberry ice cream.
Hendler's was locally owned until 1929, when its controlling interest was purchased by Borden's. The Hendler family remained in charge here until the 1960s, when the brand lost its market share.
The center of interest are three original watercolors that O'Neill did on a commission from Hendler's in the late 1920s. These works, which sat for more than three decades in Hendler's basement, are considered choice examples of one of this country's most prolific and published female artists.
O'Neill first created her roly-poly baby with tiny wings, tufts of light brown hair and apple-dumpling cheeks about 1915. The Kewpie appeared as a feature, along with O'Neill's verses, in popular magazines of the day -- the Woman's Home Companion, the Delineator and Good Housekeeping. O'Neill had a good business mind and soon began to sell the character she had named "Kewpie," possibly after a nephew.
By the 1920s the artist had licensed Kewpie dolls to be manufactured in Germany. There were also Kewpie handkerchiefs, talcum powder dispensers, jewelry, banks, lamp bases and hundreds of post cards. O'Neill also illustrated for Jell-O.
"She was very, very successful financially," said Pat O'Neill, the wife of the artist's cousin who lives in Springfield, Mo. "My husband is on his way to the sale now."
There are Rose O'Neill memorial rooms at Bonniebrook, the artist's home and burial spot north of Branson, Mo. The home is now preserved as a county historical site.
But it was in New York that Rose O'Neill was best known.
"She was quite famous in Greenwich Village, and her apartment was always full of people," said Nicholson, the O'Neill scholar. "She had an open heart and an open table. Her guests stayed for weeks. At one point her sister and she got so tired of it all they left for Europe and stayed two years. When they got back to Greenwich Village, the same people were in the apartment."
O'Neill also created other characters, Scootles and Ho-Ho, that appeared in children's books. Her influence on the period around and after World War I was considerable, Nicholson said.
She certainly had an influence on Grace Albert Benet of Ruxton. Benet has been "Kewpie" all her life.
"When I was born my parents lived in an apartment at 2615 N. Charles St," she said. "It faced a brick building across the street. On top was a big painted sign of a quart of ice cream and the Hendler's Kewpie. My mother and father looked at me -- I had a little lock of hair, brown eyes and a great big smile. They said, 'We'll call her Grace when she gets older.' Well, I grew up and people still call me Kewpie."
The Hendler family itself has been well known in Baltimore for its collecting tastes.
"The Hendlers were very eclectic in what they collected," said auctioneer Richard Opfer, who will be conducting today's sale in the 1900 block of Greenspring Drive.
"Many years ago Bud and Winnie [the late wife of Albert Hendler] invited me to their house once and I saw large groups of his collection," Opfer said. "I remember lead soldiers, cast iron toys and rare autographs. I don't remember any Kewpies."
Family members confirm that the Kewpies didn't get much attention at home.
"The signs were just sitting around in the basement of my father's house for more than 30 years. I didn't know the story of Rose O'Neill," said Nelson Hendler, Albert Hendler's son and a Baltimore County physician.
When his father retired in 1965, Nelson Hendler helped move many of the items going into today's auction from the 1100 E. Baltimore St. creamery to the family home in Baltimore County.
Included in the sale are dozens of other Kewpies, most of them printed materials the Hendler firm used to promote its flavors in drug store soda fountain windows and beside grocery dairy cases, where the ice cream was sold in prepacked pints and quarts. There are also 19th Century apothecary jars and related artifacts from the Hendler home.
"The auction is the highest and best use for all this. There is only so much you can keep in your own basement. Various family members took what they wanted. I have a neon sign on my third floor," Nelson Hendler said.
He and other family members decided to liquidate the collection through a private sale. This collection, as well as several other collections amassed by the Hendlers, were purchased by Ruxton antique dealers Robert and Carol Sullivan, who decided to consign them to public auction.
Pub Date: 10/12/96