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The Straight Dope

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Who invented the smiley face, that obnoxious little design you see plastered on stickers everywhere? Some anonymous hero lost in the quagmire of Commercial Art History? A team of dedicated iconographers hoping to devise the perfect expression of mindless optimism? Will we ever know? Hey, this is what we pay you big money for. --Ivan Brunetti, Lansing, Illinois

Hmm, your check must have gotten lost in the mail. A few weeks ago, my usual sources having come up dry, I convinced a reporter to post this question in USA Today. Overcome by wickedness, however, I phrased it, "Who invented the smiley face, and did he do time for it?" Not that I actually thought the responsible party should be imprisoned, of course; I'd settle for 20 years' house arrest in a room wallpapered with smileys. Be that as it may, I got a few calls, made a few more, and now can confidently assign credit and/or blame.

The smiley face craze, if not necessarily the smiley face itself, was the work of two brothers in Philadelphia, Bernard and Murray Spain, who were in the business of making would-be fad items. In September of 1970 (Bernard says 1969, but I suspect he's misremembering), they heard destiny calling. Casting about for some peace-symbol-like item with more general appeal, they recalled the smiley faces that had been floating around for years in the advertising business. By George, they cried, or would have cried if I'd been around to write the dialogue, we're in the midst of a ghastly war, we're surrounded by protests and hate, what the country needs is a nickel-sized depiction of a guy who's just had a prefrontal lobotomy. Whoa, just kidding! Actually, what they wanted was for all mankind to be happy and live in harmony . . . naah, that wasn't it either. Bernie, with admirable frankness, says they did it to make a buck.

Anyway, Bernard dashed off a smiley face, Murray added the slogan "Have a happy day," and soon they and their many imitators were cranking out buttons, posters, greeting cards, shirts, bumper stickers, cookie jars, earrings, bracelets, key chains, corneal implants ... OK, maybe not corneal implants, but they would have been cool. The fad lasted about a year and half; the number of smiley buttons produced by 1972 was estimated at 50 million.

But who invented the original smiley face? The best bet is that the smiley Bernard and Murray had seen floating around was created circa December 1963 for a subsidiary of the State Mutual insurance company by Harvey Ball, a graphic artist in Worcester, Massachusetts. Harvey got the assignment from the company's promotions director, Joy Young, who wanted a smile button for a morale-boosting campaign ordered up by her boss. Harvey, not a man to waste ink, initially drew just the smile. Pondering the result, he realized that if you turned the button upside down, it became ... a frown! To head incipient wise-arsedness off at the pass, he added two eyes, which you could also turn upside down, but then it meant ... I'm standing on my head!--a more ambiguous sociopolitical message. He made the thing yellow to give it a sunshiny look, and State Mutual, whom nobody would accuse of rashness, printed up 100. The buttons were a big hit, the company began handing them out by the thousands, and the rest you know. Mr. Ball's total take: his $45 art fee. State Mutual, not very quick on the uptake, didn't make anything.

Fine, but how do we know Harvey wasn't just copying some still earlier unsung genius? It's not as though nobody had ever drawn a smiley face before. Bernard Spain says he's heard Sunkist oranges used smileys in a 1930s ad campaign, and we find smileys in Munro Leaf's 1936 kids' book Manners Can Be Fun. But the Leaf smileys are crude black-and-white stick drawings bearing little resemblance to the finished work of art cranked out by Harvey Ball. Speaking as the voice of history, we declare Harv the author of this classic piece of Americana--and if anybody wants to take the honor away, they'll have to talk to us. Bidding starts at a hundred bucks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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