What did we do before the Smiley Face?

Fads | January 4, 2018

The iconic smiley face that we have all known and loved for years will be 54 years old this year. It is almost a senior citizen. It is one of those things that we see quite frequently but take for granted. After all, what’s the big deal, right?

Well for at least 1 person, it has always been a HUGE deal! That person would be the late, Harvey Ross Ball. Ball hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts and was the widely acknowledged creator of the original version of that simple, yellow and black smiley face. Ball was a graphic artist who made a living creating catchy graphics for advertising purposes.  

Way back in 1963, amid dissension in the workplace at a certain insurance company, State Mutual Life Assurance Company, to be more specific, Ball was hired to come up with a graphic design to raise the morale of its employees. The insurance company was thrilled with the finished product and promptly used the graphic to adorn posters, signs and button pins to distribute to its employees. The plan was that everyone would get into the spirit and start smiling more. Unfortunately, there is no reported information on whether or not the smiley face hit its mark for the insurance company.

Not to minimize Ball’s talent and creativity, but I’m sure you will agree that it is nothing more than a basic design. There was nothing fancy about it and it reportedly took him no more than 10 – 15 minutes to knock out. The “authentic” design featured narrow, oval eyes (one larger than the other) with a “Mona Lisa-like” mouth.  

Lo and behold, the unassuming happy face caught on and became a universal symbol of happiness. Following was an onslaught of Harvey Ball’s smiley face variations. In the early 1970s, small businessmen and brothers, Bernard and Murray Spain, picked up on the fact that the smiley face was overwhelmingly popular and (carelessly) unclaimed legally! Yep… neither Bell nor the insurance company had applied for a patent for the iconic design, so it was fair game. 

The brothers then coined a slogan to go along with the smiley face, which was, “HAVE A HAPPY DAY”. From there, the pair took the initiative to have their slightly revised graphic copyrighted in 1971. By year’s end, they had sold more than 50 million souvenirs, turning a huge profit.  The happy face was plastered on everything from coffee mugs to birthday cards. This was during the Vietnam War and people were just looking for any reason to smile. American soldiers were even wearing the smiley face on their helmets. Unfortunately, the brothers claimed full credit for the popular design, which was less than honorable but they were within their legal rights.  

In 1963, Ball was compensated a mere $45.00 for his creation. In today’s currency, that is somewhere in the neighborhood of $300.00 - $400.00.  A day late and a dollar short, Ball’s son attempted to make claim to the famous graphic design in 2001, which is now a billion-dollar brand. Long story… short, he went up against major opposition including Walmart, to no avail. Note to self… IF YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE! At the end of the day, the smiley face couldn’t be simpler in design but continues to emit positivity all these years later.

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.