Famous Tees of History Series: The True Story of the Smiley Face T-shirt (part 1 of 3)
1/26/2021 by Imri Merritt
T-shirts are a uniquely American fashion item that spread to the rest of the world, and the famous designs emblazoned on them each have a history of their own. In this series, I’ll be highlighting the most iconic designs in the T-shirt universe, diving into their origin stories, what made them so popular, then taking a look at where they are today and what they inspired.
Where did the Smiley Face come from?
The Smiley Face, or “happy face” symbol is so ubiquitous in pop culture that it seems like it’s been around forever. Of course, forever is a relative term and most of these things can be traced back to an origin. But unlike the first and second installment in this series, the true origin of this one is harder to pinpoint.
The real question is: who popularized it?
Spoiler alert: there is no single source for the famously happy face. As John F Kennedy said, “Victory has a thousand fathers,” and that’s certainly true in this case.
That doesn’t mean there’s not an interesting storyline filled with twists and turns, wars, borrowing, outright theft, corporate greed, and a long, strange trip through music history.
Is there an original Smiley?
A symbol, a graphic, a design, an icon, an emoji: the Smiley is us. And such a pure and simple visual expression of face + happy that it springs naturally from the human mind at an early age, as most parents can tell you. Just add paper and crayons.
In that sense, almost everyone can claim credit as being the originator of the Smiley face. Congrats!
But how did it emerge in popular culture? Who was the first to market the Smiley for commercial purposes? Who claims credit, who actually gets the credit, and who legally owns the rights to it?
Most people don’t seem to know the story of the Smiley, and I wasn’t far into my research before I realized that I didn’t either. It’s such an unanswered question in the public’s mind that the fake origin story in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump is as good as any.
Who is the original creator of the Smiley Face?
Our story starts in the small town of Worchester, Massachusetts circa 1963 with a little-known freelance graphic designer named Harvey Ball, who is widely credited as the original designer. He was hired by a local subsidiary of the State Mutual Life Insurance company to create a simple internal promotions campaign.
The promotions director for the company, a woman named Joy Young, hired him to create a “smile button”, designed to lift spirits and boost employee morale after a series of mergers and acquisitions.
Because apparently, buttons make everything better.
Sure, 45 bucks is a dinner and a movie these days, but in 1963 that comes out to around $370. And the work only took him about 10 minutes to complete. That’s $37 per minute. Not bad work if you can get it.
As he tells it, he first drew a simple smile, but then realized it could easily be turned upside down– and into a frown if the button was turned. Se added the two dots for the eyes, picked a nice yellow color, and his job was done.
Now that’s what I call being productive. I’ve spent more time looking for a pen.
“I made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper because it was sunshiny and bright. You can take a compass and draw a perfect circle and make two perfect eyes as neat as can be, or you can do it freehand, and have some fun with it. Like I did,” Ball said. “To give it character.”
What does the original Smiley Face look like?
Although there have been countless iterations on it, the original Smiley has fairly distinctive characteristics that will be pointed out to you if you ever visit the Smiley exhibition at the Worchester History Museum: a clearly hand-drawn mouth, with the two eyes fairly close together and towards the top of the face, and the right dot slightly bigger than the left.
You may think these details may are too subtle to notice or differentiate between other versions, but graphic designers obsess over this kind of stuff, and it can be the determining factor for authenticity if you’re trying to sell an original on eBay.
If you do have the real deal, you might even get 45 bucks for it.
What was the first Smiley used for?
The State Mutual company had recently gone through a series of mergers and acquisitions, which was the source of low morale. Joy Young had originally commissioned Harvey to do the design to be printed on tiny buttons (at only 7/8 inch radius) that would go along with the company’s “friendship campaign”.
As you might expect, they were a big hit.
Originally, only 100 pins were produced. The next order was 10,000. Soon Harvey Ball’s Smiley appeared on posters, signs, desk cards, and other office materials.
Over the next few years, these simple buttons made their way to other states and even Europe. The now-famous symbol had begun to spread, bringing unabashed optimism wherever it went, in a time before things would take a turn towards cynicism and irony during the Vietnam war a few years later.
In what must seem to be a regrettable oversight on the part of those involved, neither Harvey Ball nor the insurance company bothered to copyright the design. But according to Harvey’s son Charlie Ball, his father never regretted the missed revenue opportunity.
“He was not a money-driven guy,” said Charles in an interview with the Telegram & Gazette, “He used to say ‘Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time.'”
By other accounts, which I will cover in part two, Harvey did eventually lament the decision.
Who started the Smiley Face craze?
Fast forward to 1969-1970 in my hometown of Philadelphia, where two enterprising brothers named Bernard and Murray Spain represented the Hallmark company with their two stores in the area and were on the lookout for marketing ideas that could help them boost sales.
They must have come across a Smiley button at some point and decided to make it their own– literally.
Based on the images I could find, the Spain brothers recreated the design in several variations, eventually settling on a more standardized and symmetrical look. And just like that, the human touch of Harvey Ball’s freehand design was left behind.
The brothers copyrighted a slightly revised version of the design along with the slogan “Have a happy day,” which would later become the much more well-known “Have a nice day.”
Bernard and Murray first started putting the image on packaging and other goods, and immediately saw an increase in sales. Seeing a great opportunity, they started producing various branded items: pins, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, keyrings, clocks, cookie jars, and of course, T-shirts.
They were all printed with that happy icon. And they were all selling like crazy.
Bernard and Murray’s marketing efforts ushered in a two-year national fad that peaked around 1972. According to various sources I found, the Spain brothers sold a jaw-dropping 50 million Smiley buttons, along with a variety of other merch, generating over $1.5 million in sales.
Now that is something to smile about.
Much of the trend was due in no small part to this country’s growing disillusionment with the current events of the time, including assassinations, distrust of the government, anti-war protests, and the civil rights movement.
As Jon Savage of Guardian put it: “The fad hit the post-1960s mood: a traumatized American public turning to visual soma in order to forget the war in Vietnam and presidential meltdown.”
It’s unclear whether the Smiley actually helped the nation regain its optimism during the Vietnam War, but one thing was certain: the positive message had already begun turning to irony, as it famously adorned some soldiers’ helmets fighting in the war.
At least their enemies got to see a little happy face right before they died.
Harvey Ball’s simple creation had traveled all around the world and back.
Clearly, it was Philadelphia’s Spain brothers that first catapulted the Smiley to become one of the most recognizable logos of all time, and provided an icon for those wanting to promote positivity in the face of uncertainty and dark times.
“Our only desire was to make a buck,” says Murray. “But when it became accepted as a symbol of happiness, we were thrilled.”
The Smiley made itself home next to the peace symbol on many a jean jacket, but at the same time, it became a symbol of consumer America– stamped on everything from cheap plastic trinkets to upmarket goods sold in swanky department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Murray and Bernard soon became minor celebrities known as the “Smile Brothers”.
Through most of this time period, Bernard and Murray never claimed to come up with the design itself, which they acknowledged was the creation of Harvey Ball– as they raked in the dough. (Oh, except for that one time on the national television show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” when they publicly took credit for it.)
So the Spain brothers from Philadelphiaclearly deserve the credit for kick-starting the craze in the United States and abroad. But in yet another monumental oversight, they failed to take a crucial and logical next step: trademarking the design.
Who owns the rights to the Smiley Face?
Around the same time, in 1971 an enterprising young French journalist named Franklin Loufrani came across the Smiley. Loufrani had skipped college to join his first newspaper at 19 years old.
People said he had an entrepreneurial spirit and was a “marketing guy who was always coming up with new stuff.” And he certainly saw the marketing potential of that little yellow happy face.
At the time, he was fed up with all the downer news stories and negativity, and according to him, he came up with the symbol to label positive news stories for readers.
Yes, you read that right– Franklin denies Harvey Ball the credit. He insists the symbol is too basic to truly credit a single person with its invention.
Never mind that his Smiley looks almost identical to the happy face created by ol’ Harvey Ball.
Loufrani created a campaign to highlight happy news stories, and in 1972 published his first Smiley in the paper, France-Soir. Once again, the Smiley captured the public’s imagination and yearning for happiness, but Franklin did the one thing that those before him failed to do.
He trademarked the design in over 100 countries.
Thus, a brand was born, and the symbol dubbed simply “Smiley.”
He launched the Smiley Company™ to “harness the power of positivity” and kick-started the enterprise by selling Smiley T-shirt transfers. And frisbees. Lots and lots of frisbees. Because… happy frisbees.
Then came his masterstroke: licensing.
The concept of licensing, or allowing other companies to use your logo in exchange for a percentage of every sale, wasn’t a popular business model in Europe at the time, and he may have been one of the early entrepreneurs to exploit that space.
It seems he was French by birth, but American at heart.
After his Smiley Company™ happy face appeared in the France-Soir, other leading European newspapers wanted a piece of the positivity he was selling, which reminded people to “take time to smile”– and were willing to pay to use it.
Loufrani, like the others before him, knew this was a big deal, and with a trademark in hand, capitalized on it in a way no one else had done yet: tapping into a movement.
During the early ‘70s, France was having a counter-culture moment similar to America’s hippies: young people were rejecting traditional norms and moral structures, embracing the concepts of free love and a cultural revolution.
Loufrani took a radical step himself, printing 10 million stickers and handing them out for free at festivals, concerts, and in the streets. The simple joy conveyed by the graphic tapped into the zeitgeist of the time, making it the symbolic figurehead for happiness, peace, and activism.
Was Loufrani himself part of the movement? Not that I can tell. Or at least he never claimed to be. He was all about the Benjamins, or whatever the French version of that is.
As his son Nicolas admitted: “You could say there was a political or social meaning behind what he did, but it was really a commercial act. He wanted to make money on it.”
And boy, did he make money.
Brands came knocking and Mr. Loufrani was there to greet all of them.
The Smiley Company™ went on to become a global licensing empire worth more than $500 billion a year, with its tentacles wrapped around the world, supplying Smiley rights to hundreds of companies over several decades and squashing competition and copycats wherever found.
Apparently, there can be only one.
On their website, oddly enough they don’t even mention Harvey Ball. It only mentions that the design “was born in the ‘70s” (before Loufrani adopted it). Their marketing spiel credits themselves with harnessing “THE POWER OF POSITIVE PROPAGANDA.” Not kidding.
“We are more than an icon, brand, and lifestyle. We are a spirit and philosophy, a reminder of how powerful a smile can be.” Right. Now hand over your money.
I’ll get into a lot more about the Smiley Company™ and what happened from the ’70s to the present time coming in part two of this post. For now, let’s go back in time, back before humble Harvey, to a more innocent time of happy face history…
Are there earlier versions of the Smiley?
In the science world, there is a principle called “multiple discovery”, which is also known as “simultaneous invention.” The idea is that several different independent people reach the same breakthrough or invention around the same time because the conditions are ripe– and that the same theory can be applied to art and design.
So even if a singular creation can be pulled from the ether of a time period, it’s that same ether that others were pulling from as well.
Happy Face in The Funny Company
Although the creation is widely attributed to Harvey Ball in late 1963, check this out: that little happy face was already on TV.
In a 1963 children’s program called The Funny Company, not only did the main character’s cap have the distinctive two-dot-no-nose Smiley displayed prominently, other characters wore the same cap in various cartoons, and it appeared all over their ads and merchandising.
If that’s not enough, the Smiley was often right in the logo as the “o” and they ended the episodes with the Smiley by itself, along with the tagline “Keep smiling!”
You can’t help but wonder if this is how it seeped into Harvey Ball’s consciousness: while his kids were watching the cartoons on TV. Or maybe he liked the cartoon himself.
So that must be the first one, right? Even before T-shirts?
Not so fast. Ever hear of The Good Guys?
The Good Guys Happy Face
If we go back in time one year, the New York Radio station WMCA had a marketing campaign for their broadcast team “The Good Guys” and they gave away thousands of gold sweatshirts that were printed with the words “good guy” along with… you guessed it: a happy face. In 1962.
Although it had more of a hand-drawn look and was a bit oblong, there’s no question it was basically the same Smiley we know.
When the station called listeners if they answered their phone “WMCA Good Guys!” they were rewarded with one of the distinctive sweatshirts: always gold, always with the happy face printed in black. Apparently, these were so popular, they became synonymous with 1960’s culture in New York City.
So was that the first? Or at least the first one printed and used for promotion?
Funny you should ask…
Happy Face Lili
Jump back in time almost a decade to 1953 and you find this promotional poster for a major MGM movie called Lili. Not only do we have an almost perfect, distinctive hand-drawn happy face, but we also have a happy-cry face and a happy heart happy face! Did this artist invent emojis almost 50 years before they appeared on computers?
Nope– emojis came long before that. And I’ll get to that in part two. So was this part of a big campaign?
This is the only instance of these happy faces I could find among the promotional materials for this movie, and there’s not much more info, so I’m not sure how widespread it was distributed, but boy is that Smiley spot-on.
Surely we must be at the end of the line? you must be asking. Well…
Happy Face Jug
Jump back a few thousand years in time to ancient Turkey, when they apparently drank out of big teardrop-shaped pitchers.
In 2017, archeologists dug up this old ceramic jug and when they assembled it they discovered it was decorated with that distinctive two dots and a curve– a happy face. From 1700 BC.
Nicolo Marchetti, who led the excavations, calls it “the oldest smile of the world.” The artifact can be seen at the Gaziantep Museum of Archaeology, where it continues to smile to this day.
Luckily for the Smiley Company™, the Hittites aren’t around to collect any royalties.
Alfred E. Smiley
Jumping back to where we are in the timeline: In April of 1972, the legendary satire publication MAD Magazine featured the first parody version of the Smiley on its cover, marking the end of innocence for the symbol of happiness.
As popular as it was, Smiley culture was beset by the horrors of Vietnam, and the increasingly violent war protests back home, both of which were escalating even as attempts were being made to end both.
The time was ripe for the subversion of Smiley’s meaning and its appropriation in different media.
On the cover image, one of the Smiley pins bears the conspicuous features of Mad’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman, whose trademark gap-toothed smile has a history of its own.
Given the satirical nature of the magazine and the cultural context of this particular time, Alfred’s ignorant catchphrase “What, me worry?” superimposed onto the Smiley seemed to imply yes– you should worry.
Smiley into the future
You can’t stop the Smiley. In part two, I’ll continue the Smiley story as it gets into publications, comics, pop music and punk, late-eighties raving revelry, the ensuing crackdown, then onto ’90s grunge and mainstream movies.
In part three, I’ll cover the bitter, decade-long legal battle with a retail behemoth that is a real villain in this story as they are in others. Then we’ll look at the Smiley’s foray into the digital world to become known and loved as the OG emoji, which is almost a whole storyline in and of itself. Plus the adoption by mega-brands, the pop art world, and today’s fashion trends.
When you’re ready to make your own cultural icon for a T-shirt, fire up our newly-redesigned Design Studio, and get creative!
About the Author
Imri Merritt Imri (pronounced em-rye), also known as “M”, joined RushOrderTees in the spring of 2015, bringing over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry. Over the next three years, he helped transform the Art Department, improving the overall quality, efficiency, and customer service of the team, while making some beautiful T-shirts along the way. A graduate of the Multimedia program at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he has explored various creative pursuits, including art and design, marketing, DJing, and even producing comedy shows. He brings his well-rounded skill set and forward-thinking approach to every project he's involved with at Printfly / Rush Order Tees. He is a contributing writer for Impressions Magazine, Printwear Magazine, and ASI Central. He loves roller coasters, music, and fried pickles.