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Smiling Through The '60s And '70s: The Smiley Face's Story

Editor Picks | January 4, 2018

A smiley face patch was always one of the offerings in comic-book patch advertisements; in 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons brought the smiley face back in 'Watchmen.' Source: Flickr, Pinterest

The smiley face -- that grinning, noseless, circular yellow visage you've seen a million times, dates to 1963. Though we might associate the smiley face with the '70s, when it seemed ubiquitous on patches and posters, smiley faces were around long before that, and the face itself wasn't necessarily stoned. But hippies and stoners embraced the face nonetheless, and it's been an emblem of old-school happiness ever since.

The Designer

Harvey Ross Ball

The smiley face was invented by the late Harvey Ross Ball. Ball hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts. Ball was a graphic artist who made a living creating catchy graphics for advertising purposes.  

Morale Boost

The smiley face button

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.

The Original Smiley Face Was Asymmetrical

Ball's official smiley face

Sometimes it takes a professional designer to come up with an image a child could make. The classic smiley is just such a basic design. There was nothing fancy about it and it reportedly took him no more than 10 or 15 minutes to knock out. The “authentic” design featured narrow, oval eyes (one larger than the other) with a “Mona Lisa-like” mouth.  

Suitable For Any Apparel

Sleveles sweaters for the layered look, ca. 1970s

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.  

A Free Mascot For Walmart

In 1963, Ball was compensated a mere $45 for his creation. In today’s currency, that is somewhere in the neighborhood of $300-400.  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. He went up against major opposition including Walmart, to no avail. 

Part Of The Culture

A smileyface emoji and packaging for a DVD edition of 'Dazed And Confused.'

The smiley face has come to symbolize optimism of decades gone by -- in Watchmen, the 1986 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, it takes on all sorts of meaning when it's spattered by drops of blood. It was also, unsurprisingly, chosen as the symbol of the film Dazed & Confused, which depicts high schoolers making mischief in 1976. And it clearly lives on in the form of emojis -- they're grinning, noseless, circular yellow visages after all.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Smiley Face | The 1970s

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

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.