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Harvey Ball got $45 dollars for the Iconic Smiley Face, Which Made Other Businessmen Millionaires -- But Not Him

Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza


On October 7 this year, World Smile Day will be celebrated internationally. It occurs on the first Friday of every October, every year. This is a day when people are enjoined to smile and do something kind for somebody else.

Harvey Ball should understand the meaning of kindness more than anyone else. His smiley, the round yellow face with two dots for eyes and an upward curve for the smile, became an international success, but he was only paid US$45 for it. He never became bitter, but he was always worried that the meaning of the Smiley should be tainted.


Who Was Harvey Ball?

Harvey Ross Ball was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1921. He planned on a career in the arts and wanted to study at the Worcester Art Museum School. However, World War II put his plans on hold. He fought in the Pacific and for his courage in the Battle of Okinawa, he won a Bronze Star for heroism. After the war, he joined the National Guard until he retired as a Brigadier General.

Harvey then returned to Worcester and worked with different advertising agencies until 1959, when he started the Harvey Ball Art & Advertising company in downtown Worcester. His clients included the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America.

In 1963, State Mutual asked Harvey to design a symbol that would raise company morale. The employees felt a loss of confidence because the firm bought another insurance company based in Ohio to join them.

In 10 minutes Harvey created the Smiley, and he was paid US$45.00 for it, a sum equivalent to US$400 today. The smiley face was put on pins and became so popular that more and more employees nationwide wanted one. Hundreds of thousands of the pins were handed out, and company morale was lifted nationwide.


Happy Hippies

The success of the smiley went far beyond the insurance firm and continues long after Harvey’s death. In the 60s the hippies (today called baby boomers) bought smiley face stickers and placed them on their Volkswagon buses. They also screened the smiley onto their tie-dyed t-shirts.

The smiley continued to grow in popularity and was seen on coffee mugs, comic books, basketballs, and bags, among others. Harvey’s smiley face became a show of force, proving that people’s smiles are innate, and with great smiling comes great endorphins.

Neither Harvey nor the insurance company copyrighted the design, but the company produced thousands of buttons, and because it was perfectly legal, a vast number of imitations were on the market as well.

The original smiley is distinctive compared to copy cats.

The original smiley is distinctive compared to copy cats.

Bill Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, said the original Harvey Ball smiley face had one distinguishing feature: the eyes are narrow ovals, one larger than the other, and the mouth is not a perfect arc.

In the early 1970s, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, who owned two Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, saw Harvey’s smiley face and realized it was incredibly popular. They used the image and added the slogan, “Have a Happy Day”, which they copyrighted in 1971. By the end of that year, over 50 million buttons were sold along with other products, providing a hefty profit and returning optimism at a time when the US was in a frenzy over the Vietnam War.

Then in 1972, French journalist Franklin Loufrani trademarked the smiley in 80 foreign countries for the first time, for commercial use. After that, any US company that used the smiley had to pay a royalty.

The hedonistic 80s was a generation that danced in the subversive underground. Despite this, the smiley was featured in comics, cartoons, and political movements, showing defiant optimism.

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When Nicolas Loufrani took over his father’s company in France, it was the digital age in the 1990s. Nicolas started the Smiley dictionary, a series of Emoticons that codified emotional intelligence into social media.

The Smiley Face also continued to be shown on novelty items and paraphernalia. This worried Harvey, who felt the symbol was being overused. He was concerned that its commercialism took away from its original intent of good cheer.

Because of that, he advocated for a World Smile Day, which became an official holiday In 1999. To celebrate it, all anyone has to do is smile and perform an act of kindness, large or small, to a friend or stranger.

In this digital world, Harvey wanted his smile to retain human connectedness. So with the holiday, he attached the catchphrase, “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile.”


The sons arise

Two years later, Harvey passed away in 2001. But one could say that in his life, he embodied the spirit of the smile. He never regretted not copyrighting it, and he wasn’t bitter about how others earned from it.

Loufrani in France, meanwhile, established the smiley as a symbol of positive French news in his publication, France Soir, and continues the legacy of defiant optimism in the face of the future. Lourfrani also licensed the Smiley to Levi’s and Mars candy.

Harvey’s son Charles Ball told Telegram & Gazette that his father “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.’”

Meanwhile, Nicolas Lourfrani took over the business after his father died. He enlarged the franchise to over 100 countries and focused on clothing brands with labels like Zara, H&M, Fendi, and Moncler, among others. By 2017 the company earned $419.9 million. In 2019, the smiley was featured on Lee jeans, iPhone cases, and socks.


On the Runway

Then in 2020, Teen Vogue reported a resurgence of the smileys in fashion, including on Marc Jacobs runway shows, and Justin Bieber's line, Drew House. Annually, it continues to earn hundreds of millions of dollars, and Lourfrani has become a very wealthy man with his firm.

Meanwhile, Harvey’s son, Charles, is busy with The Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, with the tagline, “Improving our world one smile at a time”.

Here are some facts about World Smiley Day as created after Harvey’s death to honor his name and legacy:

  1. This global holiday has other names for it. In France, it’s called “Sourire”, and in Japan, it’s called “Peace Love Mark”.
  2. Every year, on World Smile Day®, “Smiley”, “Harvey Ball” and “World Smile Day®” all trend on social media. Their sponsors mesh the message of this holiday with their own products and services.
  3. The foundation’s main goal is to make people all over the world know about World Smile Day through all channels of media and to help people smile and do something kind and benevolent for someone else.

4. It takes 37 muscles to frown, but a smile only uses 22 muscles. Smiling helps you conserve your energy!

Forrest Gump smiley face scene

Why you should celebrate World Smile Day

  1. Smiling relaxes the body and boosts the immune system.
  2. Smiling releases your feel-good endorphins.
  3. Smiling is a universal sign of happiness, joy, and acceptance. Can anything else beat that?
  4. Serious info: there are 19 different smiles in two categories – social and personal smiles. In the former, you use fewer muscles. If the smile is personal and felt, more muscles are exerted from both sides of your face.

5. Chimpanzees laugh and smile like people. Rats laugh when you tickle them. If you can make a rat laugh, you can make anybody laugh.

Even in 1741 a foreboding of Ball's Smiley Face existed

In 1741 an abbot drew a semblance of a smiley face. Ball's smiley however was an out-and-out smile, rather than a slightly slanted line.

In 1741 an abbot drew a semblance of a smiley face. Ball's smiley however was an out-and-out smile, rather than a slightly slanted line.

What you can do on World Smile Day, and quotes from famous people

  1. Anything, really. Help the elderly, and give back to the world.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Do something you haven’t been able to do for a long time and really want to.
  3. Show random acts of kindness. Compliment someone, thank someone else, and do something kind for someone who you think would really be in need of kindness.
  • Here are some World Day Smile Quotes:
  • “A smile is the beginning of love” – Mother Teresa
  • "I think that anybody that smiles automatically looks better." — Diane Lane
  • "I have witnessed the softening of the hardest of hearts by a simple smile." — Goldie Hawn
  • "A smile is a curve that sets everything straight." — Phyllis Diller
  • “Smile, it's free therapy." — Douglas Horton
  • "We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do." — Mother Teresa

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