This goofy smile took over the world – the bitter story behind Smiley Face Emoji

Take a graphic designer, some devious salesmen, and an ambitious newspaper man.


Graphic designer Harvey Ball was hired by State Mutual Life Assurance Company to make employees in Worcester smile more.

The result?  The Smiley Face Emoji.

State Mutual, not known for rashness, printed up 100 in the first batch. 

10 minutes work netted Ball $45.

That’s $357.38 in today’s money.

Not bad for 10 minutes work?

Not bad at all, until you realize that the Smiley Company makes more than $130 million a year.

While Ball and State Mutual never bothered to copyright the Smiley Face, a French journalist called Franklin Loufrani did.

In over 100 countries.

He launched the Smiley Company by selling smiley T-shirt transfers.

Loufrani argues that the design of the smiley is so basic it can’t be credited to anyone.


World’s First Smiley Face?

On his company’s website, they show what they claim to be the world’s first smiley face.

It’s a stone carving found in a French cave that dates to 2500 BC.

They also throw in 1960’s radio station promotions and 1950’s film posters as proof.

Bill Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum says that the authentic Harvey Ball-designed smiley face can be easily distinguished: 

“The eyes are narrow ovals, one larger than the other, and the mouth is not a perfect arc but “almost like a Mona Lisa Mouth.”

The craze (not the creation) for the Smiley Face was the work of two brothers in Philadelphia, Bernard and Murray Spain.

Bernard dashed off a smiley face and Murray added the slogan “Have a happy day”.

(In the 70s, telephone operators ended all conversations with “have a happy day.”)

Soon they 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 a half.

The number of smiley buttons produced by 1972 was estimated at 50 million.

Even Walmart has tried to claim ownership of the happy emoji.

The law suit between lasted 10 years and cost both companies millions of dollars. 

It was settled out of court in 2007 on undisclosed terms.

It’s not all sad, though.

In 2001, Charlie Ball regained some of the optimistic meaning of his father’s creation by starting the World Smile Foundation.

The World Smile Foundation donates money to grassroots charitable efforts that tend to get ignored.

Reflecting on his iconic creation later, Harvey said that a “smile is what we want to see when we look at someone else.”

Harvey Ball


Sources :


NY Times



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