Where Did The Round, Yellow Smiley Icon Actually Come From?

Is it possible to even say the word "smilies" without smiling just a little? Since the smiley icon was created more than forty years ago, they have been brightening days for millions of people. However, smilies can actually refer to at least two different things.

One type of smiley is a symbol used to convey emotion in a text message. Also known as an emoticon, this type of smiley is created by combining different punctuation marks and letters. The traditional smiley is a yellow button with two dots and a half circle. The two dots represent eyes while the half circle represents a smiling mouth. Interestingly, traditional yellow smilies have experienced a resurgence in popularity as the graphics capabilities of both computers and the Internet have continued to develop .

The origin of traditional yellow smilies is not completely clear. There are at least three competing claims for fatherhood of round, yellow smilies. In 1963, State Mutual Life Assurance, a Worcester, Massachusetts insurance firm, was looking for ways to lift the spirits of its employees following a difficult company merger. They hired graphic artist Harvey Ball to help out. He created a round yellow button with the now-familiar two dots and a half circle. The idea behind wearing the brightly-colored buttons was to inspire the workers to smile and to help them spread good cheer.

The buttons were remarkably popular and the company scrambled to make more. Ball was paid $45 for his design work. He later remarked that it had never occurred to him to trademark the design. Over time, smilies fell into the public domain.

In 1971, French entrepreneur Franklin Loufrani began using smilies as icons to highlight good news stories as part of a newspaper promotion. The icon is now trademarked by Loufrani in more than a hundred countries, but not in the United States. The "official" website for smilies can be found at SmileyWorld.com. There is yet another who claims to have had a hand in the invention of smilies. David Stern, owner of an advertising agency based in Seattle, reportedly invented the smiley face icon in 1967.

Anybody older than forty probably remembers the huge explosion in popularity that smilies experienced during the 1970s. Two brothers named Murray and Bernard Spain began producing novelty items based on the yellow smiley icon face paired with the phrase "Have a Happy Day." They ignited a smilies craze that lasted from 1970 until 1972. More than 50 million smilies were manufactured during this short two-year span.

Today, smilies can still be found adorning a huge variety of merchandise. Graphical smilies are also used extensively on Internet forum messages and different Internet chat mediums. The yellow smilies are also used by America's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, as a mascot for their low prices. Wal-Mart recently sought to trademark smilies, but so far has been unsuccessful.

Smilies have evolved with technology and are used in ways that the original designers probably never envisioned. But the basic goal of the smiley icon remains the same: to communicate good feeling and to make people smile.