The Smile Seen ‘Round the World

Quick. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a little round yellow smiley face?


Give it up and go back to your Angry Birds, kid.

Wait, you said: “Have a Nice Day” buttons from the 1970s? 

Groovy! You win a lime-green shag rug. And we’ll throw in a day-glo inflatable chair.

Like the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” signs of a later generation, sunny yellow smiley faces with the puzzling exhortation “Have a Nice Day” suddenly emerged in the spring and summer of 1971 as the latest pop culture fad.

Buttons … bags … keychains … lollipops … those little squeezable change purses your mom got from the bank… no item was safe from the marauding merrymaker with the oblong eyes and goofy grin.

Where did he come from? And why was he telling us to have a nice day? Nobody knew. Nobody cared. Heck, it was just good to see somebody smiling.

Smiles were in short supply in early 1971. America had been hoping to catch its collective breath after the assassinations, riots, and rage of the 1960s. But the previous year had delivered more of the same.  The Vietnam War slogged on towards defeat. National Guard troops killed four student protesters at Kent State.  The Beatles broke up. And Apollo 13 nearly broke up too, halfway to the moon. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison  all died, all at 27.

Enterprising souls saw dollar signs in all this disfunction.  Sell smiles like soap flakes? Why not? Brilliant!

A new sitcom premiered on TV urging us to “Come on, Get Happy!” The same month, two entrepreneurs from Philadelphia, the Spain brothers, had an idea. They’d seen these little smiley faced buttons drifting around the marketplace for years. Why not redesign it a little, attached the slogan “Have a Happy Day” and trademark it?

They did exactly that, churning out promotional products, from buttons and T-shirts to key fobs, which sold in the millions, then tens of millions, as the fad caught fire across America.(“Have a Happy Day” eventually evolved to “Have a Nice Day”)

The Spain Brothers raked in the cash, but not the credit for the inspiration.  That smiley face that restored sagging spirits in 1971 actually originated in 1963, at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, Mass.  Following its acquisition of another company — always a recipe for workforce tension, especially if you’re the company getting gobbled up — a vice president suggested an internal “friendship campaign.”

The marketing director, Joy Young, contacted local freelance artist Harvey Ball, requesting he create a little smile to be used on buttons, desk cards and posters. Ball drew a smile but, not satisfied with the result and concerned that it could be turned upside down and used as a frown, he added two eyes, making a smiley face. The iconic design that charmed America out of its doldrums and lives on half-a-century later in trillions of texts was produced in    — ready for this? Ten minutes.

The smile button campaign, launched on January 3, 1964, seemed to strike a chord. Employees clamored for more. Then customers wanted them, too. Gradually they found their way onto thousands of lapels across the northeast.  A promotional products company based in New York, R.G. Slater, appropriated the likeness for political buttons.

But it took Bernard and Murray Spain to launch smiley into the stratosphere. The Spains adjusted Ball’s design to feature two identical eyes appearing as vertical ovals, balanced by a symmetrical smile (Ball’s original featured two eyes of different sizes plus a lopsided grin, as he later reported, “to give it some character.”)

As the decade went on, the fad fizzled. But smiley had earned immortality as the indisputable icon of 1970s kitsch. Then, in 1982, he was reincarnated as a computer icon, which eventually morphed into the emoticon and emoji that graces gazillions of texts today.

The smiley face has also made its mark as an international symbol of goodwill and the spokescharacter for the largest company in the world, Wal-Mart. Which led, ironically, to a lot of badwill, with bitter trademark disputes raging in the courts for years.

One person who wasn’t frowning through all this was Harvey Ball. Although he certainly didn’t get rich from his humble creation. The only remuneration he received — ever — was a grand total of $45, his fee for the original design work. He never trademarked it,  certainly a forgivable oversight in 1963. Heck, who could have predicted it would go beyond a few insurance company  buttons?!

For his part, Ball, a World War II combat veteran, seemed content to simply be recognized as the rightful father of a global icon. He died in 2001, living long enough to see it immortalized as an international symbol of goodwill, satirized in Forrest Gump, and emblazoned on the chest of every Wal-Mart employee around the world. The Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation lives on to extend his legacy of kindness.

Ball never did embrace the “Have a Nice Day” tagline, though.

“Personally, I think it’s insipid,” he said. “I would have gone with, ‘Have a Great Day.'”













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