History of the Smiley Face: Fifty Year Smiley Anniversary

Don’t remember the smiley face craze of the 1970s? It’s behind all the emoticons you use now. Here’s the history of the smiley face. Have a happy day : )

aNewDomain.net — Maybe you don’t remember the ubiquitous yellow, pink or orange smiley face buttons of the 1970s. But if you’ve ever downloaded an emoji keyboard or used an emoticon, you’re benefiting from the 1964 invention of the smiley face. It was created by graphic designer Harvey Richard Ball to help sooth tension among workers who just couldn’t get along. Here’s more on the history of the smiley face …

The history of the smiley face is embedded in a lot of corporate frowns, particularly those on workers faces at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, MA. The company underwent a merger, and employees were bitter and bickering hard according to Harvey Richard Ball, who was assigned the task of encouraging employees to smile more.

historyofthesmileyface1State Mutual’s so-called “friendship campaign” was supposed to get employees to smile — regardless of whether they were answering the phone, typing up a report or dealing with a claim. The firm paid Ball $45 to design a graphic to support the effort. Ball never received a dime of profit from the smiley face that became a crazy fad soon after. Neither he nor the company ever trademarked or copyrighted the smiley face, which by 1972 became one of the best-known images in the United States.

So how exactly did the smiley face come about? Designer Harvey Richard Ball, who died in 2001, told an Associated Press reporter that it was a two-step process. Ball said:

I made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, because it was sunshiny and bright …”

But when Ball turned his drawing upside down, his smile turned into a frown. Not great for morale. So he added two eyes and voila. The smiley face.

In the interview, Ball talked about the history of the smiley face and also about the wabi-sabi philosophy that made it perfect for the times — then and now. Ball said:

There are two ways to go about it … you can take a compass and draw a perfect circle and make two perfect eyes as neat as can be. Or you can do it freehand and have some fun with it. Like I did. Give it character.”

History of the Smiley Face Craze

The smiley face was a bit of a sensation on Madison Avenue by the late 1960s. But it took a pair of brothers, Bernard and Murray Spain, to turn it into a mega-hit. As lore has it, in September 1970, the two brothers were looking to capitalize on some kind of a design for a button that would have broad, generational appeal. A kind of peace sign, they said.

They recalled the smiley face stories and images circulating around the advertising business a couple of years earlier. And so they created the first mass-produced smiley face button, or the smiley button.

By 1972, they reported more than 50 million smiley buttons sold.

In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service issued the smiley face stamp. It was unveiled on World Smile Day 1999, which Harvey Ball created. The committee behind World Smile Day included representatives from the Worcester Historical Museum in Massachusetts, the City of Worcester, the Office of U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern and, of course, the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation.

Harvey Ball: “Never in the history of mankind or art has any single piece of art gotten such widespread favor, pleasure, enjoyment, and nothing has ever been so simply done and so easily understood in art.”

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Gina Smith.

Gina Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s memoir, iWoz Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer and Had Fun Doing It (W.W. Norton, 2005/2007/2012). With John C. Dvorak and Jerry Pournelle, she is the editorial director at aNewDomain.net. Email her at gina@aNewDomain.net, check out her Google + stream here or follow her @ginasmith888.

1 Comment