Smiley Face: An American Icon

Retro Staff |  1  Comment

Smiley Face SignThe bright and cheery smiley face is an icon recognized throughout the world. This sharply contrasting yellow and black artwork registers with most people almost instantly and has universal appeal. Some also call the simplistic design a smiley or happy face.

While a similar drawing was used in promo campaigns for the movies Lili and Gigi (1953 and 1958), the first mass produced “happy face” was in 1962 when WMCA radio in New York ran a competition. Radio listeners who answered the phone with “WMCA Good Guys!” received a sweatshirt with a hand-drawn smiley that featured a crooked smile.

It was in 1963, however, that the smooth-lined smiley we know today was popularized. Harvey Ball reportedly spent about 10 minutes creating the smiley face icon for an internal campaign for his employer, State Mutual Life Assurance of Worcester, MA. The “Friendship campaign” was developed to improve company morale after a merger didn’t sit too well with many of their workers.

The company produced thousands of smiley buttons in effort to encourage employees to smile while they worked. Orders for the buttons increased and the image gained attention across the globe.

Ball was paid only $45 for his artwork and never received any royalties for the image commonly referred to as the most used in both original and modified versions. Neither Ball nor his employer copyrighted the graphic.

Smiley Face Cookie Jar

Hundreds of unique items bear the happy face – like this cookie jar that conveys the message, “Cookies Are Happiness You Can Eat!”. (Retro Planet)

In 1970, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain added the familiar words, “Have a happy day” and later, “Have a nice day!”. They created tons of merchandise, including t-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers. Imitators also jumped on the smiley bandwagon and, by 1972, an estimated 50 million smiley buttons had been manufactured.

It was Franklin Loufrani who gave the happy face the name “Smiley” – it was in 1971 when he introduced to a European audience under a new name.

By the mid-1970s the smiley face craze began to fade, but never went completely out of vogue. There was a resurgence of Smiley in the late 1980s and again in the mid-2000s.

While many have tried to claim ownership and/or trademark the smiley face, in 2008 (during a lawsuit between the Smiley company and Wal Mart) a US judge declared it was not a “distinctive” mark, and thus cannot be trademarked. The Smiley company does, however, hold trademark on the face in about 100 foreign countries.

No matter who claims what, the yellow and black smiling face will continue to experience great appeal. It’s a retro symbol that will forever be associated with “be happy” times.

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Last updated: Mar 03, 2010
Filed under: Retro Ramblings Tagged with: retro icons, retro symbols