Smiles, Everyone. Smiles!

Celebrating World Smile Day

SmileyHeadWe’ve all seen it: the yellow face, the little dots for eyes, and the wide smile. Known as just the “smiley,” it has become ubiquitous in our culture, showing up on everything from coffee mugs to magnets to movies like Forrest Gump. The smiley was not, however, created by Forrest while jogging—it was created by a man named Harvey Ball, and it is in his honor that World Smile Day is celebrated the first Friday of October.


Ball grew up in Worcester, Mass., and developed an interest in being a commercial artist after working in a sign shop during high school. He attended the Worcester Art Museum School, studying fine art, but World War II got in the way and he wound up serving in the Pacific, earning a Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of Okinawa. (Ball actually wound up serving 27 years in the National Guard and retired as a Brigadier General in 1973. He then moved on to the Army Reserves, where he retired as a colonel in 1979.)

After WWII, he went back to Massachusetts and, in 1959, started his own design firm. A few years later, a client came in with a request that would change his life.

A phenomenon is born

In 1963, the State Mutual Life Assurance Company has just acquired another company from Ohio, and employee morale was quite low. The company wanted something that could create some positive energy, so they asked Ball to come up with something simple, yet powerful.

It took him all of ten minutes to come up with the design: a face of sunny yellow; narrow, oval eyes that were not quite the same size (the right one is a bit larger than the left); and a slightly off center mouth that some have compared to the Mona Lisa’s sly grin. The company loved the design and had some pins printed and distributed to encourage employees to smile during the day. The initial order of 100 pins was gone quickly, so they ordered some 10,000 more.

Ball charged State Mutual a total of $45 for the work.

The smiley was an immediate hit within State Mutual, but others quickly realized it had far broader appeal. The image appeared on pins (more than 50 million had been sold by 1971), t-shirts, bumper stickers, a stamp from the United States Post Office in 1999, and retailer Walmart has used it as part of their ad campaigns.

An opportunity missed…then taken

Remarkably, neither Ball nor State Mutual ever copyrighted or trademarked the image. When asked about this fact (and the millions of dollars he had likely lost due to not having it copyrighted), Ball responded “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.”

His son, Charles Ball, noted that his father “was not a money-driven guy. He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raised a family that never wanted for anything. He had kids in public schools who adored him. He'd get letters from all over the world thanking him for Smiley. How do you put a price on that? He died with no apologies.”

Sadly, others didn’t feel quite the same way.

Murray and Bernard Spain were card shop owners from Philadelphia who, by 1970, were slapping the smiley on everything they could, but with a twist: they added the phrase “Have a happy day” underneath. (It would eventually be changed to “Have a nice day.”) Then, in the 1990s, a lawsuit against Walmart (who had been using the icon in its ads) revealed that Franklin Loufrani had trademarked the smiley around the world and wanted to sue the retailer for using it.

Ball, however, was not happy that someone was trying to profit off of something he thought should be shared with the world for free. Thus, Ball decided in 1999 that the first Friday each October would be World Smile Day—a time to promote acts of kindness and charity.

Thankfully, honoring Ball and his creation this World Smile Day is easy: Do an act of kindness, and help one person smile.


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