The smiley face was born in Worcester


By Sharon Oliver, Contributing Writer

Worcester artist Harvey Ball created the smiley face icon in 1963 as a morale booster for an insurance company’s employees.
Worcester artist Harvey Ball created the smiley face icon in 1963 as a morale booster for an insurance company’s employees.

WORCESTER – Perhaps the most used emoji in the world is the smiley face. Many of us use it on a regular basis while texting family and friends from our smartphones. The yellow face smiling symbol has been a part of pop culture for decades, but its history is a complex one. While Frenchman Franklin Loufrani legally trademarked the use of a smiley face in 1972, it was Worcester native and decorated World War II veteran Harvey Ross Ball who designed the iconic symbol in 1963.


Company morale booster

When State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester purchased Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio, the merger caused low morale among employees. In an attempt to boost morale, Ball was hired as a freelance artist to come up with an image to improve the mood of the employees. He drew a sunny-yellow circle with a smile, added two eyes and created a smiley face. The project took around 10 minutes to complete and earned him a total of $45.

Whether the new logo boosted morale or not is unclear but the company went on to make buttons, posters and signs adorned with the jaundiced grin. Unfortunately, neither Ball nor State Mutual attempted to copyright or trademark the design. The image continues to be modified or duplicated in numerous variations including color and facial expressions but according to Bill Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, the authentic Harvey Ball-designed smiley face can always be identified by its distinguishing features: 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.”

A cultural phenomenon

By 1971, smiley face buttons were everywhere, with more than 50 million having been sold. It was now an international icon. Ball eventually contacted patent attorneys who informed him that the design was now in the public domain. Ball’s son, Charles, reportedly said his father never regretted not registering the copyright, telling the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, “he was not a money-driven guy, he used to say, ‘Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.’”

Even though it was not a part of Ball’s original design, the phrase “Have a happy day” became associated with the smiley after two brothers from Philadelphia, Bernard and Murray Spain, sold products with the logo and phrase in the 1970s. They later changed the phrase to “Have a nice day.” The brothers, who owned two Hallmark card shops, were able to copyright the revised novelty items and sell them as such. Despite acknowledging the original smiley was Ball’s design, they publicly took credit for the icon during an appearance on the television show “What’s My Line” in 1971.


Ball’s legacy

Ball founded the World Smile Foundation, a non-profit charitable trust that supports children’s causes, in 1999. The group organizes World Smile Day, which takes place on the first Friday of October each year and is a day dedicated to “good cheer and good works.” The catchphrase for the day is: “Do an act of kindness – help one person smile.”

As for Franklin Loufrani, founder of the Smiley Company, a legal battle over copyright and trademark issues ensued with Walmart, which started using the smiley face as a corporate logo in 1996 and tried to claim ownership of it. The lawsuit lasted 10 years and cost both companies millions of dollars. The case was settled out of court and terms remain undisclosed.

Harvey Ross Ball died as a result of liver failure in 2001 and his cemetery headstone is emblazoned with his iconic creation above his name. The Ball family land was purchased in 2007 by the city of Worcester and the property links Mass Audubon’s Broad Meadow Brook Sanctuary with the developing Blackstone River Bikeway. It is known as the Harvey Ball Conservation Area, home to the Smiley Face Trail.



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