Spring 2005

No Laughing Matter

A short, sad history of the smiley face

Jennifer Liese

Harvey Ball photo reprinted with permission of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

The “original” smiley face was drawn in 1963 by commercial artist Harvey Ball for a campaign to boost morale among employees brooding over an ominous merger at State Mutual Life Assurance of Worcester, Massachusetts. Ball’s fee: $45.

Vintage smiley buttons from the collection of Nathaniel Levtow.

By the early 1970s, the smiley had become a ubiquitous peace icon-cum-cheerleader, thanks to Bernard and Murray Spain, two brothers from Philadelphia who made fortunes off their sundry smiley products (50 million buttons alone were sold). Sales spiked when the Spains gave voice to their cash cow, bestowing its enduring exhortation: “Have a Nice Day!” Ball, who never made another cent off his design, was said to have found the expression “insipid.”

Petroglyph photo by Sally King, Bandelier National Monument.

But of course Ball’s wasn’t the very first smiley. This smiley petroglyph was found in Frijoles Canyon, New Mexico, where the Pueblo Indian culture dates back 3,000 years. Millennia of drought, relocation, conquest, and now this: For the past decade or so Native-American activists have fought and mostly lost a series of battles against new commuter highways linking suburban developments to downtown Albuquerque—built right alongside the Petroglyph National Monument, home to 20,000 sacred petroglyphs.

Mars photo courtesy NASA.

Mars’s Galle Crater, better known as the “Happy Face Crater,” photographed by the Mars Global Surveyor Orbiter in 1999. Wrought by a meteor, it’s about 134 miles across. (According to NASA’s website, “It looks like Mars is happy to see us!”) Current NASA funding for the Spaceguard Survey, the primary means of earth’s defense against asteroids and comets: $4 million per year. Estimated cost for George W. Bush’s man-on-Mars space initiative: $500 billion to $1 trillion.

The emoticon, first posted on an online bulletin board in 1982 by Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, was invented as a way to indicate humor or sarcasm. Who knew digital epistles would turn out to be so much funnier than their paper forebears? “It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time,” Fahlman reflects. Today, anecdotal evidence suggests that more blossoming love affairs have been called off over one party’s horror at discovering the other’s use of emoticons than over differences on abortion, political affiliation, and capital punishment combined.

Pipe bomb images source: CNN.

And who can forget the “smiley face bomber,” Luke Helder, the 21-year-old art student arrested in 2002 for planting 18 pipe bombs in mailboxes across the US heartland? Having set off the eyes in Nebraska and on the Iowa/Illinois border, he had just begun the mouth in Colorado and Texas when he got caught. The pipe bombs, which produced injuries but no deaths, were delivered along with a photocopied anti-government rant signed “Someone Who Cares.” The name of his rock band—Apathy—notwithstanding, Helder was invariably described by friends as “cheerful.” Indeed, pictures show him grinning widely while being escorted between jail and court, finishing off that smile one way or another.

Those three tiny smileys are Ecstasy pills. “Bob,” a kind of Windows-meets-virtual-reality-for-dummies (1995), is Microsoft’s worst-selling product of all time. Smiley Swastika pin by ManWoman.

Remarkably protean, the smiley serves infinite happy agendas.

Proposed Massachusetts license plate design courtesy Charlie Ball and the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation.

If Harvey Ball’s son, Charlie Ball, has his way, the smiley will soon adorn every license plate in Massachusetts—or at least 1,500 of them. Since March 2003, Ball fils has been on a mission to gather the 1,500 applications Massachusetts DMV requires to produce a specialty plate. According to smileyplate.com [link defunct—Eds.], by mid-January 2005, Ball had 1,002 applications in hand. “Just 498 to go!” Bay State residents take note: You just might make this a happy ending after all.

Jennifer Liese is an editor of Cabinet.

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