Little Grin, Huge Impact: The Evolution of The Iconic Smiley Face in American Pop Culture
If you're like me, you use this image daily in text messages, but do you know where it came from? Y'all know I love to collect things, and this iconic drawing is one of the cheerful things I like to decorate my living spaces with. My mom actually just brought me a beautiful flower arrangement she put together in a vintage vase she found.
I know this may come as a shock, but Forrest Gump did not create the "Have a Nice Day" brand by wiping his mud-covered face onto a t-shirt while running across the country.
First Appearances of The Smiley Face
Drawings of smiling faces were used in children's shows and even for the promotion of a radio show called the "Good Guys" in the 1950s/ early 60s. However, the first appearance of THE smiley face as we know it was in 1963 when Harvey Ross Ball, a freelance artist, was hired to create an advertising campaign for The State Mutual Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts. They were in desperate need of something to boost morale among their employees. It was such a hit, they ended up distributing and selling upwards of 50 million buttons by 1971.
The Smiley Face is Born
This simple design took Harvey all of ten minutes and he was paid a whopping $45! That is approximately $450 today. At the time, he never dreamed it would become this popular, so he didn't copyright his creation. Once he finally decided to do so, he was told that the image was so widespread, it was officially considered public domain. Harvey was reportedly never upset by this and said he was just glad that it brought joy to so many people.
Soon after, two brothers, Bernard and Murray Spain of Philadelphia jumped on the popularity of the smiley, added the phrase "Have a Happy (or Nice) Day," and trademarked that combination. Thinking it would just be a fad, they went to town creating cookie jars, shirts, bags, the vase my mom gave me, and an endless number of grinning items selling as quickly as they could. They made an absolute fortune!
The Smiley Face as a Timeless Icon
The yellow smiling face has lasted throughout the years bringing joy with the simplest of features. I remember plastering it all over my notebooks and sporting t-shirts and purses in the late 90s. Remember when Joe Boxer was huge? The trend continues even now with every major brand incorporating Harvey's design in some way.
Of course, the creation of the Emoji has made images of basic facial expressions a component of modern communication as we can now tell someone how we feel without even using words. There is no way Harvey Ball would ever have predicted the evolution of his smiley face like this.