Putting on a happy face: the story of the Smiley

Below is an excerpt from the November 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine, featuring Slingsby Gin from Harrogate.

Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a new and unique bottle of amazing small-batch gins along with several surprises that maximise enjoyment of the gin. This is all accompanied by and GINNED! Magazine, which is packed full of information about the gin, the distillery and lots of other fascinating features.

Harrogate, home of November Gin of the Month, Slingsby, has been named the UK’s happiest place three years running, meaning you’ll likely find the UK’s highest concentration of smiles per capita in the spa town.

To pay homage to Harrogate's happiness - and the smile that scrumptious Slingsby cocktails will put on your face - we take a look at the history of the a modern icon: the Smiley.

$45. 10 minutes. That’s all it took to create one of the modern era’s most iconic images, one that makes all that see it as happy as the people of Harrogate: the Smiley face. The origins of the smiley story are as simple as the design. But the story’s development over the years left bigger smiles on the faces of some rather than others.

The Smiley story starts in 1963 in the Massachusetts city of Worcester, a town which doesn’t have much to make its residents smile (trust us - your GINNED! correspondent spent his university years in the city).

On the ball: Harvey Ball sketches smiles

On the ball: Harvey Ball sketches smiles

An acquisition by the Worcester-based State Mutual Life Assurance Company had left employee morale low and the management sought a scheme to raise spirits, hiring freelance artist Harvey Ball to create a delightful design - specifically a smile - to be used on pins that would be handed out to employees. 

With these orders, Ball went to work. “I made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, because it was sunshiny and bright,” Ball told the Associated Press in 1996. But when he turned the simple drawing over the smile turned into a frown. As that wouldn’t do for the insurance company’s desired “happiness campaign”, Ball simply added two oval dots above the curved black line to form a face. And the rest is happiness history… almost.

A Smiley pin

A Smiley pin

The Smiley pins turned out to be hugely popular and what began as an order for 100 pins handed out to employees quickly transformed into orders of 10,000 as the insurance company’s customers began asking for them. 

But not until the 1970s did anyone begin to make money from the world’s second-most famous smile (after Mona Lisa, of course), specifically three people on two continents. 

In 1970, a pair of brothers in Philadelphia, Bernard and Murray Spain who owned novelty gift shops, stumbled upon the smiley face whilst looking for something to merchandise that would represent the anti-Vietnam War sentiment in the States.

When sales immediately took off, the brothers quickly trademarked the face combined with the tagline “Have a happy day” (later changed to “Have a nice day”), a combination that resulted in the sale of over 50 million pins amongst other smiley paraphernalia by 1972 making the Spains multi-millionaires. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, French media man and journalist Franklin Loufrani began using the smiley face on January 1st, 1972 in his freelance column for the evening paper France Soir for which he wrote a “happy news” column.

Franklin Loufrani: wiping the smile off Harvey Ball's face

Franklin Loufrani: wiping the smile off Harvey Ball's face

Having helped to license the image of the children’s book hero, Babar the Elephant, Loufrani took his knowledge of copyright protection and trademarked the Smiley face. As the newspaper in conjunction with French radio station RTL ran the “Take time to smile” campaign in 1972, Loufrani earned one cent on each of the 12 million stickers sold during the campaign, followed soon after by 2 million t-shirt sales with the yellow effigy.

“By the time I was 30,” Loufrani told French newspaper Le Figaro in 2010, “I made a magnificent living. I had offices on the Champs Elysées, a beautiful country house, and a car with chauffeur and a telephone.”

Loufrani didn’t stop there, however. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he continued to earn royalties from the licenses he owned on the Smiley brand and in 1996 launched the company Smiley Company with his son to manage the trademarks he owned in over 80 countries around the world, trademarks that in the digital age have extended to emoticons. Today, the London-based Smiley Company earns over £100 million annually and is one of the world’s top 100 licensing companies.

But with the billions of pounds generated by Smileys since the 1963 inception of the icon, how did Harvey Ball make out financially? Not very well it turns out. Ball didn’t even discover that Loufrani had trademarked the Smiley until 1998 when the Frenchman threatened to sue US companies that sold Smiley products in the countries where he owned the trademark.


Despite a lifetime of association with the Smiley face he created, including the city of Worcester calling itself “The Birthplace of the Smiley Face” and the 1999 establishment of the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation which raises money for children’s causes and organises World Smile Day, all the money that Harvey Ball ever received from his internationally-recognised creation was his 1963 payment of $45. 

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