Happy Face History 101

Faces with a happy expression have been around just about forever.

But if I write that I saw a “happy face” nowadays, almost no one is going to think I mean a smirking statue, a cheerful child, or a giggling grownup.

THIS is what will pop into virtually everyone’s mind who reads the term.

So the question is, as the old song put it, “How long has this been going on?” If you are under 40, you may assume that the ubiquitous, iconic “happy face” has been a fixture in western civilization for oh, maybe a century or more.

Surely second grade teachers in your grandparents’ day scribbled such happy faces next to the A or B+ in the margin of a math paper, even if “stickers” hadn’t been invented yet.

No, they didn’t.  And therein lies a happy-face history lesson.

My earliest memories of the canary yellow, minimalist happy face are connected to hearing my two year old daughter, just learning to untangle spoken English into usable words, squealing “Oppy Cee! Oppy Cee!” in about 1972.  (It was quite a while before she mastered the letter F.) She was absolutely obsessed with the icon, and freaked out whenever she saw one—which was just about every day, just about everywhere. For in 1972 the relatively new fad was at its peak.

It had started out with just happy face buttons and happy face bumper stickers.

But once merchandisers realized the power of the image, they rendered it in a thousand different ways, in print and 3-dimensional objects.

You knew it had “arrived” when it even showed up on the cover of Mad Magazine.

So where did Mr. Oppy Cee come from?

In 1963, the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, had a morale problem. A recent company merger had left employees on edge and glum.  So local free-lance graphic artist Harvey Ball was hired to come up with a simple smiling face logo for a little in-house happiness campaign, which would have posters and desk cards—and buttons for employees to wear to remind them to smile.

Harvey’s first draft was simply a cheerful yellow circle with a smiling mouth. But when he turned it upside down, he realized that turned it into a frown. Not wanting to accidentally give a wrong impression, he added two dots for eyes to make sure the smile stayed smiling.

In a 1996 interview, Harvey commented about his original Happy Face,  “There are two ways to go about it. 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.”

And that’s what separates Harvey Ball’s Original, Classic Smiley Face from all the Smiley-Come-Latelies who came along later.

What makes a classic happy face, as created by Harvey Ball, like this hand-drawn, autographed one that was dashed off in his later years by the master himself with black and yellow marking pens?

Harvey’s character-laden happy face has always had one eye smaller than the other. As you look at him, the eye on your left is distinctly smaller than the eye on the right. There MUST be corners on the mouth, that indicate cheeks. And those corners are also not mirror images of one another.

In addition the Harvey Happy Face doesn’t have a mouth that is an arc of a circle—it is a more oval curve. The HHF has a much bigger “chin” than most other happy faces—the mouth is significantly higher on the circle than in most cookie-cutter happy faces. And it would never, never, ever have nostrils, or lips, or eyebrows! A HHF always consists of a circle with just five “strokes”—2 for eyes, one for mouth, and 2 for the mouth corners. If you were around in the early 1970s and old enough to have an independent memory of those days, just seeing the REAL Happy Face should bring back a flood of memories.

It’s impossible to miss the Harvey Happy Face in a Police Line-up!  It’s got character.

Sadly, the standardized, geometrically perfect happy faces of the merchandisers took over so early that even my daughter (now 40) didn’t remember what the REAL Happy Face looked like. He’s been kind of lost in the shuffle these days.

Or would be if it wasn’t for the Harvey Ball  World Smile Foundation!

Before his death at age 79 in 2001, Harvey Ball started the World Smile Corporation. The corporation sponsors an annual World Smile Day, and licenses goods with the Harvey Ball Happy Face on them. Sales raise money for the non-profit Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, that supports children’s causes.

World Smile Day has its own website:

As is well known by now throughout the world Harvey Ball, a commercial artist from Worcester, Massachusetts created the smiley face in 1963. That image went on to become the most recognizable symbol of good will and good cheer on the planet.

As the years passed Harvey Ball became concerned about the over-commercialization of his symbol, and how its original meaning and intent had become lost in the constant repetition of the marketplace.  Out of that concern came his idea for World Smile Day®. He thought that we, all of us, should devote one day each year to smiles and kind acts throughout the world.  The smiley face knows no politics, no geography and no religion.  Harvey’s idea was that for at least one day each year, neither should we.  He declared that the first Friday in October each year would henceforth be World Smile Day®. Ever since that first World Smile Day® held in 1999, it has continued every year in Smiley’s hometown of Worcester, MA and around the world.

After Harvey died in 2001, the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation was created to honor his name and memory.  The Foundation continues as the official sponsor of World Smile Day® each year.

This website was created to provide information about  World Smile Day®, Harvey Ball and Smiley.  Browse the archives to learn more about past World Smile Day® events, Smiley and his creator – Harvey Ball.  And be sure to join the celebration this year on Friday, October 7th, and “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile”!

For more Happy (Face) Talk, see the fascinating article by graphics art guru Gene Cable, who married a Happy Face junky, on the CreativePro.com site:

And don’t forget … even YOU can change the world…

One smile at a time.

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One Response to Happy Face History 101

  1. Pingback: Happy Face History 101 | Currently StaRRing …

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