Heavy Metal Madness: Put on a Happy Face!


When I met my wife Patty back in the very early ’80s, it made perfect sense to me that she was fond of classic yellow happy-face buttons. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, so for a leather-jacketed, Ramones-loving, intelligent woman, irony was about the only course of action. She wore a happy face button on her chest to partially balance the look of disgust on her face. Patty was somewhat alone in her attachment to the happy face then — this was, after all, the time between the first happy face invasion of the late ’60s, and the second-coming of the happy face in the ’90s.

Figure 1: The original happy face design, 1963.

Before continuing, I have to pass along the original training I received during an early first-date, which I think is still applicable. It is “happy face,” never “smiley face,” or “smiley” (too cutesy). Remember, this is coming from Patty-with-a-y, never Patti-with-an-i, especially if it was dotted with a little smiling face or a daisy. And though color didn’t really matter to Patty, the line was clearly drawn at noses. An authentic happy face never has a nose. Or lips. A good happy face is, except in the case of parody, to be no more than five elements — the two eyes, the mouth, and the smile lines on either side.

During the ’80s, all the real happy face stuff was collecting dust on second-hand-store shelves and in teenagers’ drawers. After being paired with the phrase “Have a Nice Day,” the happy face enjoyed a brief peak of popularity in the early-’70s. Soon, however, the happy face became a symbol to deride or mock, as passe as the peace symbol or ecology flag. Wal-Mart, Hallmark, and Joe Boxer had yet to capitalize on the discovery that one of the world’s most recognizable characters was in the public domain, and free for the taking. And the online community had yet to embrace the happy face as an “emoticon,” further contributing to its resurgence.

Every Fad Has Its Day
As with any fad, I suppose, the first incarnation is always the best. There was a certain innocence and charm about the initial wave of happy-face products. The ubiquitous symbol fit in well with the bold-colors and pop-art expressions of the time. It was an interesting (if not successful) antidote to the stress and turmoil of the Vietnam conflict, and it was naively compatible with a generation of free-spirited, daisy-toting youth. “Have a Nice Day” became “Have a Nice Night,” complete with winking happy face.

But rapid over exposure and the onset of gas shortages and an energy crisis dampened the nation’s enthusiasm, and interest in the happy face waned. Nothing could be that simple anymore.

I’d say Patty lost her own retro interest in happy faces just about the time her mother finally noticed the many smiling yellow items around our house and began buying large, over-stuffed happy-face toys and other modern items that completely missed the point, as mothers are wont to do. Cheap knockoffs from China and around the world began flooding the market, and the original innocence of the happy face became corrupted by noses, tongues, eyebrows, ears, and other facial parts.

Figure 2: Ethnic and holiday happy faces were destined to arrive. Here, several holiday variations from Hallmark, a Japanese happy face from a cover of the Economist magazine, a happy face on ecstasy (presumed) and a black happy face.

For a brief period in time, however, the happy face could truly be called one of the great graphic symbols of all time, even if we all pretty much hate it now.

Is Everybody Happy?
The idea of drawing a simple face on any number of objects, especially natural ones like the sun and moon, is not a modern idea. You can research ancient hieroglyphs and see some remarkably similar images to the grinning character we’ve come to know today. And a viewing of the movie “Bye-Bye-Birdie” will find Dick Van Dyke in his film debut drawing imaginary happy faces while singing “Put on a Happy Face.”

But there was something about the combination of the bright-yellow color, the roughness of the design, the button/bumper sticker format, and timing that created the universally embraced character that Walt Disney would be proud to call his own.

Several attempts over the years have been made to trademark the happy face symbol, and a company in France, the Smiley Licensing Corporation has succeeded in getting some companies to pay them a fee rather than fight litigation. But others have successfully challenged the company’s claim of ownership in courts throughout the world. In America, at least, the happy-face “logo” is up for grabs.

There are a few conflicting stories out there about the origins of the happy face, but historians are settling on the one I am about to tell, and it appears plausible, and I believe it to be accurate.

Designed to Boost Morale
The original yellow happy face has its origins in Worcester, Massachusetts on the drafting table of freelance graphic designer Harvey Ball. Joy Young, Promotions Director for a subsidiary of the State Mutual Assurance Company, ordered up a button design from Ball that would help boost morale at the company (which had recently gone through a merger). According to press reports, Ball originally drew just a smile, but feared cynical employees might simply wear the button upside down. So he added two small eyes for vertical reference. A sunshine-yellow background and, voila, the happy face was born.

Figure 3: Happy face designer Harry Ball, in a 1996 Associated Press photograph, in the office he occupied on Main Street in Worcester, MA, for more than 30 years. Below, a happy family from a 1984 greeting card, copyright Aqua Ink, Inc.

In an interview with the Associated Press in 1996, Ball recalled: “There are two ways to go about it (drawing a happy face). 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. Give it character.”

Ball is also on record as having said that “never in the history of mankind or art has any single piece of art gotten such widespread favor, pleasure, enjoyment, and nothing has ever been so simply done and so easily understood in art.”

State Mutual originally printed up 100 buttons, but when they became popular give-away items, many more were produced. A 1964 picture shows State Mutual vice president John Adams wearing one of the yellow buttons. Ball was paid a $45 fee for designing the button, and neither he nor State Mutual thought to trademark the image.

Figure 4: The variety and colors of buttons proliferated quickly.

The happy-face was soon picked up by several novelty manufacturers, including N.G. Slater Corporation of New York, a company specializing in political campaign and other promotional buttons. Of the happy face button, the company claims “N. G. Slater originated it in 1968.” As far as the popularity of the buttons goes, this is likely a rightful claim. The majority of the 50 million buttons sold in 1971 were probably Slater’s. George McGovern (also a Slater customer) used the happy face (but not the colors) in his 1972 Presidential bid.

Figure 5: The happy face was adopted by many groups as a symbol. Here a 1972 McGovern Campaign button, an early Unicef promotion, and a card that was handed to me in a restaurant quite a few years ago.

But it was also early on in the career of the happy face that the phrases “have a happy day,” or “have a nice day” were paired with the sunny icon. This fateful act is attributed to Philadelphia brothers Murray and Bernard Spain, then young fad promoters and now respected city business leaders. It was their company that extended the happy face into bumper stickers, t-shirts and other items. Bernard was the artist, Murray the copywriter on that version. The brothers freely admit to having seen the button “around the ad business for a while,” and claim rights only to its exploitation, not its origin.

And of course you know the rest.

Figure 6: From jewelry to cigarette lighters to pencil sharpeners and salt shakers, the happy face has found its way onto nearly every type of product. The character is, in many places, completely in the public domain.

Figure 7: Mad Magazine got in on the happy face act in 1972 when they ran this cover.

Once unleashed the happy face quickly spread like a virulent flu, crisscrossing the world and becoming the universal symbol for something, though I’m not sure exactly what. Happiness? Approval? Insipidness? From the grading pens of enthusiastic school teachers, to the spray cans of urban graffiti artists and acid-house punks, the happy face continues to take form over and over again. Hated or loved, it can now be found in various forms in nearly every toy store, card shop, party supply store, and classroom around the world.

Figure 8: It’s always happy hour with this Lux clock from the late ’60s, and in keeping with my supposed letterpress theme, here’s a toast mold that allows you to impress a happy greeting into the bread of your choice.

Harvey Ball went on to organize the World Smile Day as part of his World Smile Foundation. The event is celebrated the first Friday of each October in Worcester, where Ball died at age 79 on April 4, 2001. By all counts Ball was a humble man, who was never bitter that his design produced neither great fame nor compensation. He had fought in Okinawa, earned a Bronze Star for heroism, and raised three children. He was content in knowing his legacy would go on for a long time to come. Ball continued to run an advertising and public-relations business on Main Street in Worcester up until his death.

Figure 9: Proclaiming World Smile Day in Worcester, MA. From left-right: State Representative Robert Spellane, Charles Ball (son), Managing Trustee of the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, and Worcester Mayor Timothy Murray. Below, the citizens of Worcester celebrate World Smile Day 2003, held the first Friday of October.

Post Script:
For those younger folks in the audience who only know the happy face from email and text messaging :-), it’s only fair to tell a brief history of that usage, as well.

First of all, it’s not really a happy face, because in its original form it had a nose :-). So let’s go ahead in this usage and refer to it as a smiley face, which I think is more fitting, anyway, and somehow more appropriate for something called an emoticon.

The smiley face emoticon was first proposed on September 19, 1982 in a posting by computer science professor Scott Fahlman on the Carnegie Mellon University general bulletin board. Originally thought lost forever, this posting was resurrected by a digital archive team from backup tapes in 2002. The message read:

10-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current rends. For this use


You can read Scott’s own account of the moment on his Web page.

Figure 10: A 1972 Gahan Wilson cartoon, part of a hilarious three-page spread on the subject, copyright the National Lampoon, and a small Associated Press item, date and origin unknown.

Read more by Gene Gable.

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.
  • anonymous says:

    The last image inspired curiosity that was satiated by google…


  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much for your interesting info. I just found a smile face Lux clock at a garage sale and wanted more info for dating this lovely. Shame I can not find out about the value of this vintage clock. Any ideas anyone?

  • Anonymous says:

    My very favorite graphic, emoticon, symbol! It can represent so much in so many different subject matters, and theoretical situations. I use it all the time both personally & in business. Love, love, LOVE it!

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