Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The origin and back story of the smiley face

By Jack Brummet, Pop Culture Editor

A smiley face poster from the late 1960's

We mostly see it now as an "emoticon," a symbol used in computer messages, and sometimes tied to the phrase "have a nice day,"  but most often as a symbol for "like" or "I like this."

The smiley is the printable version of character 1 codepage 437 of the first IBM PC and all subsequent PC compatible computers.  Unicode smiley and sad face characters :

U+263A or alt(+)1

In the 60's, this yellow circle with two eyes and a smile (usually), the smiley face, was everywhere—on buttons, posters, signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, and emblazoned on numerous trinkets.

Harvey Bell's original smiley face?

Although the counterculture, and, later, the mainstream absorbed it, the ubiquitous image we all came to know was created in 1963 as a motivational image for employees of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company by Harvey Bell, a commercial artist.  He created the design in ten minutes and was paid $45.

My version of the smiley

Even though Harvey Bell gets all the credit, the image was clearly in some use before 1963, like this advertisement for a movie from in 1953.

This work is in the public domain in that it was published in the 
United  States between 1923 and 1977 and without a copyright notice


In 1967, Ball's smiley was used in an advertising campaign for Seattle's University Federal Savings & Loan. And the same design was later used when the Mad Man who launched that ad campaign, David Stern, ran for Mayor of Seattle in 1993 (he lost).

The smiley face made an appearance in the blockbuster movie, Forrest Gump. On one of his transcontinental runs, a shirt is given to Gump.  When he wipes his face, the dirt stained shirt reveals what seems to be eyes and a mouth and the smiley face is born. 

The overuse of the smiley face and"have a nice day" became annoying, and strayed far from its original meaning and intent.  By the '70s. the smiley face and the phrase "have a nice day" become a hollow sentiment, perfect for Nixon-era America.  Fifty years later,the unending smile, is still with us.    Recently Wal-Mart abandoned it's use of the smiley on their uniforms and on signage.  An interesting article on Wal-Mart's smiley can be found here.


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