Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about the research she did to unravel the mystery of her great-grandfather’s Kewpie doll tattoo. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”
I love how genealogy can provide surprises and uncover family facts that were lost long ago because they seemed trivial or unimportant back then. Case in point: a detail about my paternal great-grandfather Oscar Joseph Philibert (1899-1972).
My great-grandfather died when I was a little girl so I don’t remember him. However, he was an everyday presence in his grandchildren’s lives since my dad and his family lived next door.
Recently my nephew wanted to complete his genealogy merit badge for Boy Scouts. His father is my brother, and so I decided we would look at more recent generations in our shared Philibert line so that it would be of interest to my nephew and my brother. Because I knew I could find Oscar in several online databases, I chose him as our research project.
I knew quite a bit about Oscar before teaching my nephew about family history. Oscar was born in 1899 in New Hampshire, and was the child of French Canadian immigrants. As a young man he registered for the World War I draft, and in 1919 he joined the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the USS New Mexico and the USS California, which eventually led him to spending time at port in Southern California – where he met and married my great-grandmother, Mary Chatham.
After his military service he lived in Los Angeles County with his wife and later their only child, my grandfather Leo Philibert. Through research, I had obtained all the usual documents such as the censuses he appeared in, his military records, his vital records (birth, marriage, and death), and I had documented him in the California voter registrations and city directories.
But over time, as records become more available online, we learn new things. As my nephew and I searched online for Oscar we found his World War II Draft Registration from 14 February 1942, and that registration had an interesting detail I hadn’t seen before. On the back side of the card, under the sentence “other obvious characteristics that will aid in identification” were the words: “tattoo of Kewpie doll on chest.”
What? A Kewpie doll tattoo?
After my 11-year-old nephew stopped laughing, he and my sons asked me what a Kewpie doll was. After I showed them a photo on the Internet, we all had the same question: What was my great-grandfather doing with that tattooed on his chest?
He had served in the U.S. Navy so the fact that he had a tattoo wasn’t surprising. His military papers don’t indicate he had a tattoo when he joined, so I figured this was something he acquired during his service. There were tattoos historically that sailors sought to adorn their bodies with – but I wasn’t sure a Kewpie doll was one. I knew I had more research to do!
This is a perfect example of how social history can help provide some insight into your ancestors’ lives. First, my nephew and I talked to my dad and asked him if he knew anything about this tattoo. His immediate response was: “That was a Kewpie doll?” He remembered his grandfather’s tattoo but he also remembered not being able to figure out what it was.
So, the question still was, why a Kewpie doll? Looking at the history of Kewpie dolls, it started to make sense why it was possible my great-grandfather chose this image.
To my surprise, Kewpie dolls were enormously popular when Oscar acquired this tattoo. They were the image that Americans were familiar with.
Kewpie was the brainchild of illustrator Rose O’Neill, who created the character that first appeared in a Ladies Home Journal comic in 1909. The character, which was a round, whimsical, genderless, naked cherub, derived its name from the name Cupid. The character became so popular that it was used in marketing campaigns for products like Jell-O, and was made into dolls so that people could not only read and see the Kewpie image but they could also own one.
Interestingly enough, it was also used in pro-suffrage materials, an important cause for Rose O’Neill.
So, what about tattoos? It goes without saying that sailors in the early 20th century had tattoos. I would assume that Oscar’s tattoo was a souvenir from his four-year military career. According to the article “World War I: The War to End All Wars” on the Tattoo Archive website, a study in 1908 claimed that 90% of American sailors were tattooed. (1) Navy sailors tended to choose tattoos like a hula girl if they had gone to Hawaii, an anchor to symbolize their service, or a swallow for each time they had traveled 5,000 nautical miles.
Judging from historical newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, Oscar wouldn’t have had to be in his home port to get his tattoo from a local artist; he might have received it from one of the tattoo artists who followed the fleet from port to port, as this article suggests.
Kewpie dolls were a popular tattoo design starting in the early 1900s, but became “old-fashioned” and unpopular by 1950. (2) This corresponds with the appearance of the Kewpie doll in the pages of Ladies Home Journal and the lifespan of its popularity. The Tattoo Dictionary by Trent Aitken-Smith further confirms that the Kewpie doll was a popular tattoo:
“At the beginning of the twentieth century Kewpie dolls were a common sight on tattoo flash walls…”
(Tattoo flash are the drawings that you would see on a tattoo artist’s walls or in books or their tattoo art.)
Two questions I have yet to answer are: (1) Why did my great-grandfather choose that tattoo? and (2) What did the tattoo look like? While he may have chosen the design due to its popularity, he also could have chosen it for a personal reason – like maybe it was my great-grandmother’s nickname, or maybe she loved Kewpie dolls. I may never know the answers to these questions and that’s ok.
What I’ve learned so far helps to provide Oscar’s descendants with more information about his life. He is more than just someone represented on a genealogical chart – he’s a living, breathing person who saw the world, enjoyed life, and yes, had a tattoo. While I may never know the whole story behind this choice, it won’t stop me from continuing to explore this topic.
(1) “World War I: The War to End all Wars,” Tattoo Archive (https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/world_war_1.php: accessed 17 September 2019).
(2) “Kewpie Dolls,” Tattoo Archive (https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/kewpie_dolls.php: accessed 17 September 2019).