Home Irregulars The Troubled Tale of How Smiley Became the World’s First Emoji

The Troubled Tale of How Smiley Became the World’s First Emoji

It all started in Worcester

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Worcester native Harvey Ball did not have a nice day when he learned a Frenchman registered a trademark for the smiley face.

As everyone in Worcester knows, Ball had created the ubiquitous symbol of good cheer in 1963. He did it for an insurance company to improve employee morale. Franklin Loufrani took credit for the smiley in 1971 and made millions on it.

It wasn’t until 1998 that Ball, at 76, found out about it. “So much for smiley and happiness,” he huffed to the Associated Press in 1998.

Not the original

Harvey Ball never sued Loufrani. But he did start World Smile Day, a day to smile and commit acts of kindness. And after his death in 2001, the World Smile Foundation organized to license smileys and to promote World Smile Day.

Ball’s son Charles said his father didn’t care that much about the money he could have made.

“He 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’,” Charles Ball told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Birth of the Original Emoji

Ball fought in World War II and then returned to his hometown to work for a local advertising agency. He started his own firm in 1959. Four years later he got the job to come up with an image to ease tensions at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company. The company had bought the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio, and the merger stressed the employees.

Harvey Ball

Harvey Ball created the smiley face for posters, buttons and desk cards in 10 minutes. For his efforts he earned $45.

State Mutual, now Hanover Insurance, first printed 100 buttons and handed them out to employees. They reminded employees to smile when dealing with customers.

Word got around fast, and hundreds of thousands of requests for the button poured in. State Mutual ordered more smiley pins in lots of 10,000 until giving up in the late 1960s.

Meanwhile, two brothers from Philadelphia saw an opportunity. They trademarked the smiley and the phrase “Have a nice day.”

Havey Ball

In 1972, Franklin Loufrani saw the image in a French newspaper and moved to trademark it. He claimed he made $100 million a year selling products with the smiley face.

In 1990, Wal-Mart began using its own trademarked version of the emoji to alert shoppers to deals. Seven years later, Loufrani began selling smiley-themed clothes, bags and mugs in the United States. As a result, Wal-Mart sued him and won. Loufrani sued Wal-Mart in a different court, and the two sides settled.

The Smiley Returns

In the end, there’s no doubt Harvey Ball created the smiling yellow emoji. William Wallace, executive director of the Worcester Historical Museum, said it is well documented in text and photography in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Furthermore, State Mutual Life’s internal documents support Harvey Ball.

”No one else can make a successful claim,’ Wallace said.’

Wal-Mart quit using the smiley face in 2006, but brought it back a decade later. The Wal-Mart smiley, however, differs from Harvey Ball’s.

The Harvey Ball smiley has three distinguishing features: Narrow oval eyes, the right larger than the left; sunny yellow color and a slightly off -center mouth.

Harvey Ball finally got around to founding the World Smile Corporation in 1999 to license smileys and organize World Smile Day, which raises money for children’s causes.

Harvey Ball died after a short illness in 2001 at 79. His family subsequently sold conservation  land to the City of Worcester, with help from Mass Audubon and the state environmental services department.

The land links Mass Audubon’s Broad Meadow Brook Sanctuary with the Blackstone River Bikeway. Named the Harvey Ball Conservation Area, it is home to the “Smiley Face Trail.”

Images: Harvey Ball with smiley merchandise, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13061563; Smiley face graphic, By Garchy – Photograph, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50566003. Harvey Ball in sweater, By Ytsukamoto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60021641. Smiley By en:User:Mystìc – Originally created by en:User:Mystìc at en:Image:SNive.gif. Vectorized by Psiĥedelisto, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55079042

This story was updated in 2023.

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