Because today (Oct. 3, 2014) is the 15th annual World Smile Day, I'm posting the story of Harvey Ball, the artist from Worcester, MA who created the original Smiley Face fifty years ago and never made more than $45 from his creation. Then, in 1999, disturbed by the crass commercialization of the Smiley, Harvey created World Smile Day--the first Friday in October every year--to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face. So World Smile Day is the day to do a random act of kindness--improving the world "one smile at a time."
When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny. Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling. But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life. As he told People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”
Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, was the creator of the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and internet icons. When, in December of 1963, he picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and drew the world’s first Smiley Face, Harvey, a self-employed commercial artist, was working on an assignment from a Worcester insurance company suffering from employee discontent after a merger. They wanted a campaign and buttons to raise company morale. They ordered 100 yellow Smiley Face buttons and then, when those disappeared almost over night, they ordered 10,000 more.
Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45. When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain. By the mid-seventies, according to the curators of the Worcester Historical Museum, the image had fallen out of favor.
But Smiley made a significant comeback in the late 1980’s when interest in acid and other psychedelic drugs became a major cultural phenomenon. The icon was embraced by trendy downtown club kids. Those who grew up in the 1970’s—today’s most desirable consumer demographic —view the image with nostalgia. (Some of them also think it was created by Forrest Gump, the fictional movie character.) When votes were taken by the U.S. Post Office for icons to represent the decade of the 1970’s, the most popular image by far was Smiley, whose stamp was issued in 1999.
Brothers Murray and Bernard Spain of Philadelphia added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” and took in a reported one million dollars in sales of Smiley products in the first six months of 1971 alone. In 1998, French Businessman Franklin Loufrani claimed that HE had created the image in 1971, and he proceeded to trademark the face in 80 countries. When faced with Harvey Ball’s earlier creation, Loufrani replied with a Gallic shrug: “I don’t care if he designed the Smiley face. We promote, we own, we market.”
Riled up by “the France guy” as he put it, Harvey in 1999 created World Smile Day—the first Friday in October-- to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face. And he trademarked it. Harvey said, “World Smile Day® is open to every person on the planet. No matter what color they are, or who they might pray to, no matter what country they live in. World Smile Day® simply asks each person to live the day with a generous heart, do one kind act, to help one person smile. Acts of kindness and smiles are contagious."
Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich? To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time. I’m not ticked off about it. I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset. I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”
Even though he didn’t want to profit from it, Harvey Ball did want recognition for creating the image whose smile has been called more famous than the Mona Lisa’s. He said “Smiley is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created, as simple as it is. It’s got a very, very positive message. Anybody can use it and reproduce it and it reaches everybody regardless of language, religion, nationality, all those things--as compared to some of the art you get today which you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking at…I’m glad Smiley came from Worcester. The city should make more of it. Because no other city has this.”
After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said : “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets. His moral compass stayed on northh and never wavered."
And he left us the legacy of a smile.