The History of the Yellow Smiley Face

The yellow “smiley face” may be the most ubiquitous icon. It’s the most used emoji for our online chats and offline messages. You can also find it in many things – T-shirts, throw pillows, mugs, stickers, car tags, pins, coasters, plastic bowls, and other practical and novelty items.

How did the “yellow smiley face” come into being?

There’s a mystery that lies beneath the yellow smiley face’s enduring and timeless appeal. You cannot help thinking – where did it start? How did it become so popular? Who came up with it? If you have such questions, good thing your eyes have just landed on this article. Hopefully, the story will bring a grin to your face.

The yellow smiley face – demystified

The history of the smiley face might go way back farther than one can imagine. For thousands of years, the “smiley” face had been used as ideograms and pictograms. The oldest recorded instance of the smiley face is found on an ancient Hittite pot, excavated by a team of archeologists led by Niccolo Marchetti of the University of Bologna. When the pot was pieced together, Marchetti and his team discovered a large smiling face engraved on it – it is deemed the world’s oldest known “smiley.”

We go fast forward to the 20th century, where the yellow smiley face rose to become a cultural icon. The smiley face we know today was born in 1963 in Worcester, Massachusetts when graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball was approached by State Mutual Life Assurance Company to create a happy face to boost its employees’ morale.

Within ten minutes, Ball created the first “smiley face,” which consisted of a bright yellow background, large oval eyes, and a full smile with creases on both sides of the mouth. He must have had no idea that he created an icon that would attach itself so firmly in the fabric of American (and eventually, worldwide) culture. Ball was paid $45 for his work, which was a pretty whopping fee at the time.

The image of a smiling face against a yellow background was utterly, and even ridiculously, simple. You cannot help but laugh at the mere thought of it and may regard it as a silly idea. But it is the very simplicity that led to its timeless popularity and enduring appeal. Ball is often quoted as saying to the Associated Press: “I made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, because it was sunshiny and bright.”

While other versions existed before, Ball’s rendition of the smiling face has become the most famous and iconic version.

Bernard and Murray Spain were brothers who owned several Hallmark card shops in Philadephia. They caught wind on the yellow smiling face and decided to take advantage of its growing popularity. In September 1970, they copyrighted the design with the slogan “Have a Happy Day.” They incorporated these symbols into several novelty items such as buttons, T-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and many other things. The Spain brothers worked with a New York-based button manufacturer NG Slater, and by 1972, around 50 million yellow smiley face buttons had been produced.

Not long after the Spain brothers turned the yellow smiley face into a commercial success, French journalist Franklin Loufrani launched The Smiley Company. He also became the first person to legally trademark the use of the smiley face. Loufrani had also used the icon to indicate the good news parts of the French daily newspaper France Soir.

Over the years, the yellow smiley face has been re-imagined a lot of times. Rock bands like Nirvana and Talking Heads brandished the famous icon. It even became an emblem of the rave culture during the 1980s and the 1990s, imprinted on flyers and ecstasy pills for acid house DJ’s and their zealots.

How could something as simple as a yellow smiling face achieve a rare feat as a countercultural icon and a cash cow? And not just that – more importantly, it has also become an outstanding example of American consumerism.

The Smiley Company, which netted nearly $420 million in 2017, argues that the smiley is more than an icon. It is also a “spirit and a philosophy.” Although The Smiley Company is a global firm, the image strikes a very American chord. It represents America’s cult-like obsession with anything happy, and what can they buy to achieve it.

Furthermore, the smiley is far beyond a nuanced symbol than its dopey facial expression would have led you to believe. It can express anything – from a cold, insincere corporate greeting to a blissful rush of experiencing first love. Artists, designers, and entrepreneurs have continued to draw inspiration from the yellow smiley face’s graphic simplicity and sarcastic potential.

Still, let’s not forget the yellow smiley’s original purpose and intention – to provide a morale boost in situations where it is sorely needed. And in times like these, the icon feels more relevant than ever.