A Brief History of the Smiley Face
Here at Joie, we don’t have the resources to hire an in-house team of archeologists, but you can bet that if we did, we’d have sent them to the caves of Africa or the steppes of Eastern Europe by now to search for Paleolithic evidence of the smiley face. For a company so involved in the business of happiness, we want to know where everyone’s favorite symbol originated.
As exciting as it might be to imagine what a Neanderthal smiley might look like, this international icon seems to have a much shorter history.
The humble little face had its start in the Worchester, Massachusetts studio of graphic designer Harvey Ross Ball. In 1963, The State Mutual Life Assurance Company commissioned Ball to design an icon that would help elevate happiness at the workplace. Ten minutes of creative effort and Ball had created one of the most recognized symbols in the world. He was paid $240.
Although there wasn’t much quantifiable evidence to suggest that the smiley made life happier for Mutual Life Assurance Company employees, the company spent some serious cash on wide distribution of their new icon. They put it on posters, pamphlets, and, most notably, small yellow buttons that could be pinned to clothing. Too bad Ball never thought to register the copyright.
In 1970, the founders of Hallmark stumbled upon the smiley and immediately saw its greeting card potential. By attaching a simple saying—“Have a Happy Day”—they were able to secure copyright to the icon.
But the smiley is an international symbol—made all the more obvious when, in 1972, French journalist Franklin Loufrani started using it to indicate particularly uplifting news articles. After receiving some positive feedback about his unique use of the symbol, he trademarked it and founded The Smiley Company, which his son took over in 1996.
Although it may seem otherwise, the Loufranis do not claim to be the originators of the smiley. They hold that its history dates back to 2500 BC—to a cave in Nimes, France where a crude facsimile was discovered, inscribed on a small stone.
For us, the originator of the smiley face, be it a Paleolithic human or a humble graphic designer, is less important than the icon’s fundamental creation. In retrospect, the smiley face and cavemen do share one commonality: a relationship with insurance companies.