February 4, 2008 A History of the Smiley Face

From Betty Boop to the hula hoop, popular culture is always primed and ready to dive into the latest fad.


Established by act of Congress on July 9, 1918, the Silver Star is the third-highest decoration is the system of military honors awarded to members of US armed services for valor in combat, against an enemy of the United States.  A search of public records reveals a long list of recipients of the Silver Star including the name “Ball, Harvey A. HQ, 45th Infantry Division, G.O. No. 281”.

Harvey Ball earned the silver star medal “for Conspicuous Gallantry in Action” in the 1945 battle for Okinawa. He went on to serve most of his life in the United States Army Reserve and retired in 1979 with the rank, of Colonel.

A member of the greatest generation his was a name you may not know but I guarantee you will know the man, by his work.

Harvey Ross Ball worked for a sign painter in Massachusetts while attending Worcester South High School, and went on to study fine arts at the Worcester Art Museum School.

After the war, Ball came home to Worcester and worked for a local advertising firm later opening his own ad agency, Harvey Ball Advertising, in 1959.

Harvey Ball, surrounded by his creation

In 1963, the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester (now Hanover Insurance) bought out the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio.  Employee morale tanked with the new acquisition.  Director of Promotions Joy Young was tasked with solving the problem.  Young hired Harvey Ball as a freelance artist to create a visual icon. A pin to be worn as part of the company’s ‘friendship campaign’.

First came that silly grin. That part was easy but the pair soon realized, the button could be inverted.  Now we’ve got a “frowny” face and we can’t have that. Ball added eyes, the left drawn just a bit smaller than the right to “humanize” the image.

The work took ten minutes and the artist was paid $45, equivalent to $330 today.  Neither Ball nor State Mutual Felt the need to copyright the graphic.

From Betty Boop to the hula hoop, popular culture is always primed and ready to dive into the latest fad. State Mutual ordered 100 buttons.  It wasn’t long before manufacturers were taking orders for thousands at a time.

Seven years later the Philadelphia brothers Bernard and Murray Spain seized on the image producing coffee mugs, t-shirts, watches and bumper stickers by the millions, emblazoned with the happy face and the slogan “Have a happy day”.  That was later revised to, “Have a nice day”.

The image was everywhere, second only to the ubiquitous “Peace Sign” of the era.

Frenchman Franklin Loufrani copyrighted the graphic in France in 1972, using the image in the “good news” section of the newspaper France Soir and developing a line of imprinted novelty items.  Loufrani’s son Nicolas took over the family business and launched the Smiley Company, in 1996.

Unsurprisingly, the younger Loufrani is skeptical of Harvey Ball’s claim to have created such a simple design, pointing to cave paintings found in France dated to 2500BC and a similar graphic used in radio ad campaigns, of the early 1960s.

Of course, that didn’t prevent the company from seeking US trademark rights to the image and kicking off a years-long legal battle with retail giant WalMart, which had been using the happy face in its “Rolling Back Prices” campaign.

The 2007 film “Smiley” depicts the story of a lazy actress who eats marijuana laced brownies baked by a stoner roommate and embarks on a series of life-changing misadventures. If you don’t remember the film you’re in good company. The thing was delisted less than three months later on February 4, 2008.

The Smiley Company is one of the 100 largest licensing corporations in the world with revenues of $167 million in 2012, holding rights to the Smiley Face in over 100 countries. Notably, the United States is not one of them.

Harvey Ball wasn’t the first to draw a smiley face, or at least something similar. When archaeologists pieced together the broken shards of a Hittite jug there appeared looking back from some 3,700 years in the past a round circle with upturned mouth and two little dots, for eyes.

The Czech monk Bernard Hennet used something like very much like it in his signature, around 1741.

And yet it is one image we remember, the perfect yellow circle with the dots and lines that could only come, from Harvey Ross Ball.

Characters flew to Mars in the 2009 superhero film “Watchmen” , landing in a crater that looks very much, like Harvey Ball’s creation. The red planet’s own smiley face is very real I assure you. It’s an enormous impact basin located in the Argyre quadrangle in the southern highlands of Mars and named after the astronomer, Johann Gottfried Galle.

Would I kid you about something like that?

The Galle Crater, on Mars

As for Ball himself, he didn’t seem to mind never copyrighting his creation. His son Charles says his father never was a money driven kind of guy. “Hey”, he would say, “I can only eat one steak at a time. Drive one car at a time”.

The artist is gone now but his work lives on in the popular imagination. And in the place where Harvey and his wife Winifred went to their eternal rest in the Notre Dame cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you’re ever in the area stop on by. It’s one of the happier places on earth as cemeteries go with Harvey Ball’s creation emblazoned on both sides and looking back at you as if to say, “Have a Nice Day”.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

7 thoughts on “February 4, 2008 A History of the Smiley Face”

      1. I bought a 2006 Heritage Softail from a buddy back in September, and rode the thing well into January. I used to be a major league winter sports guy. Now I find myself Jonesing for warmer weather, so I can get the thing out of storage. Funny how things change.

        Liked by 1 person

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