WORCESTER, MASS. — When Harvey Ball took a black felt-tip pen to a piece of yellow paper in 1963, he never could have realized that he was drafting the face that would launch 50 million buttons and an eventual war over copyright.
Mr. Ball, a commercial artist, was simply filling a request from Joy Young of the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company to create an image for their "smile campaign" to coach employees to be more congenial in their customer relations. It seems there was a hunger for a bright grin – the original order of 100 smiley-face buttons were snatched up and an order for 10,000 more was placed at once.
The Worcester Historical Museum takes this founding moment seriously.
"Just as you'd want to know the biography of General Washington, we realized we didn't know the comprehensive history of the Smiley Face," says Bill Wallace, the executive director of the historical museum where the exhibit "Smiley – An American Icon" opens to the public Oct. 6 in Worcester, Mass.
Worcester, often referred to by neighboring Bostonians as "that manufacturing town off Route 90," lays claim to several other famous commercial firsts, the monkey wrench and shredded wheat among them. Smiley Face is a particularly warm spot in the city's history.
Through a careful historical analysis, Mr. Wallace says that while the Smiley Face birthplace is undisputed, it took several phases of distribution before the distinctive rounded-tipped smile with one eye slightly larger than the other proliferated in the mainstream.
As the original buttons spread like drifting pollen with no copyright attached, a bank in Seattle next realized its commercial potential. Under the guidance of advertising executive David Stern, the University Federal Savings & Loan launched a very public marketing campaign in 1967 centered on the Smiley Face. It eventually distributed 150,000 buttons along with piggy banks and coin purses. Old photos of the bank show giant Smiley Face wallpaper.
By 1970, Murray and Bernard Spain, brothers who owned a card shop in Philadelphia, were affixing the yellow grin to everything from key chains to cookie jars along with "Have a happy day."
"In the 1970s, there was a trend toward happiness," says Wallace. "We had assassinated a president, we were in a war with Vietnam, and people were looking for [tokens of] happiness. [The Spain brothers] ran with it."
The Smiley Face resurged in the 1990s. This time it was fanned by a legal dispute between Wal-Mart, who uses it to promote its low prices, and Franklin Loufrani, a Frenchman who owns a company called SmileyWorld. Mr. Loufrani says he created the Smiley Face and has trademarked it around the world. He has been distributing its image in 80 countries since 1971.
Loufrani's actions irked Ball, who felt that such a universal symbol should remain in the public domain in perpetuity. So in a pleasant proactive move, Ball declared in 1999 that the first Friday in October would be "World Smile Day" to promote general kindness and charity toward children in need. Ball died in 2001.
The Worcester exhibit opens on "World Smile Day," Oct. 6. It features a plethora of Smiley Face merchandise – from the original Ball buttons to plastic purses and a toilet seat – and contemporary interpretations by local artists. The exhibit is scheduled to run through Feb. 11.