Who invented the smiley face?

Dear Cecil: 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


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Oh? Guess your check got 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?” That did the trick. I got a few calls, made a few more, and now can confidently assign credit and/or blame.

The smiley face craze, though not the smiley 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 were casting about for some peace symbol-like item with more general appeal, and recalled the smiley faces that had been floating around for years in the advertising business. By George, they said, 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. Ha, just kidding. Actually, what they wanted was a symbol of happiness and love … OK, 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, and more. 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 wiseguys 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 any money either.

Fine, but how do we know Harvey wasn’t just copying some still earlier unsung genius? It’s not as thought 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 kid’s 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.

Unca Cecil: Not smiling anymore

To the Teeming Millions:

Cecil’s minions were crowing on a local radio show the other day about having finally found the people responsible for the smiley face, only to get two alarming calls from listeners. Both had worked for the same Los Angeles ad agency, Carson Roberts (now apparently defunct), and both distinctly recalled seeing a smiley face on the firm’s notepads, complete with the slogan, “Have a happy day.” The year: 1961. The year we said the smiley face was invented: 1963.

Naturally we were concerned. If the callers were right, there were only two explanations: either (1) some bizarre kink in the space-time continuum had enabled the people in LA to know about something that wouldn’t be created in Worcester, Massachusetts until two years later, or (2) we were wrong. Sadly, we resigned ourselves to giving the heave to our previous views about chronological cause and effect.

First, however, we wanted proof. We asked Phil Renaud, a Chicago illustrator and former Carson Roberts employee, to send us a sheet of C-R’s notepaper-cum-smiley, which, amazingly, he still had. When we got it we immediately tore up the letter we were about to send to the physics society. The notepaper in fact did have a smiley face, but it wasn’t the classic full-frontal two-dots-and-a-curve-on-a-yellow-circle that we all know. Rather, it was a three-quarters view of a not-quite-so-brain-dead-looking little guy with hair, nose, etc. No yellow, either, just B&W. Clearly a distant cousin at best to the smiley Harvey R. Ball drew in 1963.

One thing, though. The notepaper did have the slogan “Have a happy day” on it, which we had been previously led to believe had been composed by Murray Spain, one half of the team of Philadelphia brothers that started the smiley fad in 1970. Murray’s claim of originality now clearly lies in the dust. His only consolation is that he made a gazillion bucks.

More candidates

Dear Cecil:

Regarding the origin of the once ubiquitous smiley face, I’ve enclosed the version I’m most familiar with for your entertainment and information.

— Jeff Kurtti, Los Angeles

Cecil replies:

Ah, the David Stern story. Several people have sent me this, including someone who must be either Stern’s press agent or his mom, since it includes a whole packet of stuff about the guy. Stern, the Seattle adman who gave Egghead Software its name, came up with a smiley face for a campaign for Seattle’s University Federal Savings and Loan. Trouble was, he did this in 1967. We’ve already established that Harvey R. Ball drew a smiley face in 1963.

A more potent claim is that the smiley face first appeared in 1962 on sweatshirts given away by WMCA radio in New York. I haven’t been able to track down one of these shirts yet (although I’d be pleased to accept a donation), and so can’t be sure we’re talking about the canonical smiley, i.e., two eyes and a mouth on a yellow background, and not merely some proto-smiley having a vague resemblance. We’ll interrupt your normally scheduled program with a bulletin if we learn more.

One more thing. We’d been crediting the launching of the smiley craze (though not the creation of the smiley) to Bernard and Murray Spain, brothers who ran a Philly novelty company. Now some say credit must be shared with New York button manufacturer N.G. Slater. Cecil despairs of getting to the bottom of this — what am I going to do, take depositions? — but if further info emerges I’ll let you know.

The story of the smiley: The saga continues

To the Teeming Millions:

Readers awaiting further word on Harvey R. Ball’s beleaguered claim to have drawn the original smiley face in 1963 will be pleased to know that one of the smiley sweatshirts given away by WMCA radio in New York in 1962/1963 has turned up — and it’s not the canonical smiley. (We love the word canonical, incidentally, and the chance to continue using it is the principle reason we’re pursuing this interminable quest.) The WMCA smiley, it must be said, is close — it’s printed in black on yellow cloth and consists of two eye-dots and a mouth-curve in a circle. But it appears to have been drawn with a thick paintbrush and consequently is more irregular (and frankly has more personality) than the Ball smiley. Harv, as far as I’m concerned, is still da man.

Also … I’m not sure what to make of this, but looking at the smiley buttons that are accumulating on my desk, I notice that the Harvey Ball smiley and the David Stern smiley … you remember David Stern … are exact duplicates, down to a minor variation in the size of the right vs. left eyes. I make no accusations, but it seems clear somebody has been up to something.

Enough already with the WMCA sweatshirts

To the Teeming Millions:

Cecil has been showered lately with Polaroids, photocopies, etc., of WMCA smiley-face sweatshirts, along with numerous other examples of the smiley in history. I’m awestruck at the enterprise the Teeming Millions have shown in this regard, but feel obliged to say that IF I SEE ONE MORE FREAKING SMILEY FACE I’M GOING TO THROW UP. Thank you, and have a nice day.

The origin of the smiley face: The scandal deepens

To the Teeming Millions:

I don’t care if you’re tired of this. I’m writing this column, and I find this topic a source of never-ending fascination. Now comes word that the city of Seattle has been rocked by a smiley face scandal.

For many years Seattle ad man David Stern has been taking (or at least not refusing) credit for inventing the smiley face, saying he cooked it up for a local savings and loan in 1967. Some weeks ago this column reported that, whatever David Stern may have done for the savings and loan, he wasn’t the originator of the smiley face. The honor, if you want to call it that, rightly belongs to Harvey R. Ball of Worcester, Massachusetts, who drew the smiley we know today in 1963.

Now we learn that the citizens of Seattle, figuring that the inventor of the symbol for brain-dead optimism was the ideal candidate to lead them into the brave new world of the 90s, voted for Stern in sufficient numbers to make him one of the two contenders in that city’s 1993 mayoral runoff.

But the truth wasn’t long in coming out. Our column revealing the smiley’s actual origins came to the attention of reporter Bruce Barcott of the Seattle Weekly. Seeing a Pulitzer in it, Barcott jumped on the story with both feet. In a searing exposé, he revealed that:

  • David Stern didn’t originate the smiley face.
  • The smiley campaign Stern came up with for University Federal Savings & Loan in 1967 didn’t singlehandedly boost that institution from one office and $40 million in assets to 23 offices and $1 billion in assets, as a Stern campaign ad somewhat disingenuously suggested.
  • Stern didn’t personally invent the name and concept for the Egghead Software retail chain. (He invented the name and Professor Egghead; somebody else came up with the idea for a chain of software stores.)

In response, Stern wrote an affronted letter to the Seattle Weekly. (He asks: What about “my plans to manage crime, the homeless, graffiti and litter, revitalize downtown,” etc.? Don’t distract us with side issues, Dave.) How will Seattle voters respond to these revelations? You’ll read about it here.

One more thing. (What, you thought we were done?) Cecil has learned that a smiley museum, of all things, has been established by Mark Sachs of Silver Spring, Maryland. The theme park and gardens not having been completed yet, right now the museum is housed in Mark’s house. Mark has had the temerity ask if I’ll donate my collection of smileys to his museum, saying he’s “more than happy to reimburse you for postage and handling.”

Postage and handling! Mark, you cur, these things have incalculable sentimental value. But throw in a box of cigars and I’ll give it some thought.

Seattle’s honor preserved

In the general election, incumbent Seattle mayor Norm Rice defeated happy face non-inventor David Stern. Nothing against Stern, but I’d say justice was done.

May he rest in peace

From the Associated Press wire for April 13, 2001 (www.boston.com/news/daily/13/smiley.htm):

WORCESTER — Harvey R. Ball, whose simple drawing of a smiling face on a yellow background became a cultural icon, died Thursday after a short illness. He was 79. Ball, who co-owned an advertising and public relations firm in Worcester, designed the Smiley Face in 1963 to boost the morale of workers in two recently merged insurance companies.

I don’t normally do this.  But this one’s for Harv: 

Credit where it’s due

Dear Cecil:

My brother Bernie and I have always been correctly credited with the creation of the smile fad that began in the early 70s as you have described. We have never claimed that we drew the yellow face design that is accepted today as the original — that was indeed done by the late Harvey Ball. We were the first to see the consumer appeal that this happy face possessed. We placed it on many different products, posters, shirts, greeting cards, mugs and dozens of other items. This has been documented in newspapers all over the USA in the early 70s. This was the era of Vietnam and the country was desperate for something warm and fuzzy. Just ask Forrest Gump. The only claim that N.G. Slater can make is that they were one of the many manufacturers that supplied us with buttons … millions of buttons. As to the phrase “Have A happy day,” not until we placed these words together with the face on posters and other products did it become mainstream. In the 70s telephone operators ended all conversations with “have a happy day.” The smiley face continues to bring joy to people all over the world. It is used today by Wal-Mart and other companies. Bernie appeared on the TV show “What’s My Line” back in 1971.

We did not as you have described make gazillions. We did create one of the most instantly recognized fads of the 20th century. Have a happy day.

— Murray Spain

Cecil replies:

They say success has a thousand fathers, Murray. Sounds like so do fads.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.