Harvey Ross Ball Smiley


From early 60’s America to it’s ubiquitous association with the second summer of love and rave culture of the late 80’s the simple Smiley design has taken quite a journey.

In this post I will try and get to the bottom of it all and explain some of the cultural significance.

So where did it all begin? No one is completely sure but it was a long time ago.

We do know fragments from a pot dated 1700 BC and found in Karkamış, Turkey appeared to have a large smiley face painted on it.

And in the early part of the last century the Danish writer and poet Johannes V. Jensen, famous for experimenting with typography, used both a happy face and a sad face, resembling the modern smiley, in a letter sent to publisher Ernst Bojesen.

In 1953 and 1958, smiley faces were used in promotional campaigns for the films Lili and Gigi.

And in the early 60’s an American children’s television programme called ‘The Funny Company’ used a crude smiley face as the kids club logo, the design was worn on hats and used in the end titles along with the words ‘Keep Smiling’.

The Funny Company smiley

And then in 1962 the radio station WMCA in New York gave away thousands of sweatshirts with a smiley face and the slogan ‘WMCA good guy’ – the DJs at the station were known as the Good Guys. It is alleged that Mick Jagger wore one of these sweat shirts but I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this but an image does appear in an internet search.

Mick Jagger wearing a WMCA Smiley sweat shirt

Even with all this, most people seem to accept that the logo that we still see today and call the Smiley was designed by Harvey Ross Ball, an American graphic artist and ad man from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Smiley designed by Harvey Ross Ball

In 1963, The State Mutual Life Assurance Company (now called Allmerica Financial Corporation) wanted to raise morale among it’s employees after a series of difficult mergers and acquisitions. So they asked Ball to come up with something. Legend has it, Ball was payed around $40 and spent less than 10 minutes coming up with the idea by taking a black felt-tip pen to a piece of yellow paper. State Mutual launched ‘The friendship campaign’ so their employees would feel good when they interacted with the public and each other.

According to Bill Wallace from the Worcester Historical Museum, the original Harvey Ball designed smiley could be identified by its unique features: narrow oval eyes, one slightly larger than the other, and the smile is not a perfect arc but “almost like a Mona Lisa Mouth.”

Posters, badges, and signs were made in the attempt to get the The State Mutual Life Assurance Company employees to smile more. It is not certain whether it worked, but the company produced thousands of badges.

Neither Ball or State Mutual tried to trademark or copyright the design, which has left the precise origins open.

The original badges became very popluar and with no copyright attached, a bank in Seattle realised its potential. In 1967, Seattle graphic artist George Tenagi designed his version of the smiley, doing so at the request of advertising executive David Stern, working on behalf of University Federal Savings & Loan. A marketing campaign using a Smiley Face and inspired by Lee Adams’s lyrics in ‘Put on a Happy Face’ from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. They eventually distributed 150,000 badges along with other branded items including piggy banks, purses, and used a Smiley Face wallpaper inside the bank.

In Philadelphia around September 1970 two brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, adopted the classic Smiley design, adding the words ‘Have a happy day’ which was later amended to ‘Have a nice day’). 50 million Smiley badges were sold.

Despite acknowledging Harvey Ross Ball’s original design, the brothers took credit for icon and appeared on the television show ‘What’s My Line’

The Brothers Spain were able to copyright the revised mark in 1971.

The classic Smiley had arrived. A perfect circle, two vertical oval eyes and a large upturned semi-circular mouth.

But, in 1972 a French journalist called Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the mark for commercial use. He first started using the logo to highlight good news stories in the newspaper France Soir. He then trademarked the smile, dubbed simply ‘Smiley’ in over 100 countries and launched the Smiley Company.

france-soir smiley

In the mid 90’s Walmart had also started to use a Smiley Face in stores and TV ads. A copyright litigation ensued and continued for a long 10 years before a judge ruled against Walmart in 2006.

Loufrani’s son Nicolas took over the family business and today the Smiley Company makes more than $130 million a year and is one of the top 100 licensing companies. The company has taken the original simple graphic and transformed it.

Even though his father’s original newspaper icon is almost an identical copy of the Ball original Nicolas Loufrani does not accept the claim that Harvey Ross Ball is the originator of the design he argues that the design of the Smiley is so fundamentally basic it can’t be credited to anyone.

Mad magazine published a Smiley cover in 1972 with Alfred E Neuman’s face appearing in a yellow circle.

DC used a Smiley in a comic around 1973/4 called Prez: First Teen President. It featured the first sinister use of the symbol. Boss Smiley, a Smiley-faced leader of an ultra-rightwing militia.

In Watchmen, originally a twelve-issue comic book created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987, the Smiley is worn by a corrupt and violent superhero, The Comedian.

The Watchmen connection leads us on to the arrival of the Smiley and it’s use within Acid House culture.

In February 1988, Bomb The Bass released ‘Beat Dis’ and used the very similar blood-stained Watchmen smiley on the sleeve of the record.

Around the same time Danny Rampling had started using the Smiley in a flyer for his club Shoom, the idea came from a shirt covered in smiley faces being worn by the Wag clubs in house designer designer Barnzley. So the Smiley began to be used as the second “o” in Shoom. Other promoters began using the Smiley as well.

It swept the country as the logo of acid fashion and entered the social commentary as the symbol of rave culture.

In 2001 Harvey’s son Charlie tried to reclaim the legacy of his father’s creation. He started the ‘World Smile Foundation’ which donates money to grass-roots charities.

Although not really a Smiley, a similar icon started to appear around the late 90’s on Yahoo! Messenger and then as an emoji on Japanese mobile phones. These graphics were an advancement of the emoticons that originated on the PLATO IV computer system in 1972 and the first ASCII emoticons written by Scott Fahlman in 1982.

I hope you found some of that information interesting don’t forget to check out my other inspiration posts here

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