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A Brief History of the Smiley Face, Rave Culture's Most Ubiquitous Symbol

It isn't just cute—it's a symbol of defiance.

Michaelangelo Matos

2016 has been such a horrible year that the continuing ubiquity in dance culture of the smiley face symbol makes a perverse kind of sense. Sometimes the smiley was used as simple nostalgia—specifically, for the way it connotes the late-80s flourishing of acid house in the UK, when the smiley became the fledgling dance scene's semi-official mascot. For instance, last spring, Sankey's club owner David Vincent announced a series of nights called "Dance 88/89," featuring smiley-festooned flyer art and a who's-who of first-wave UK acid-house DJs. In November, UNDRGRND Sounds released a pack called They Call It Acid , festooning its cover art with you-know-what.

Nostalgia certainly played a role in the way London's fabric nightclub used a modified smiley as a talisman in its fight to continue business after it lost its license and subsequently shut down in the fall. When the Houndstooth label issued the 111-song #savefabric benefit compilation, the cover art (and a slew of T-shirts) cleverly substituted the club's logo for the smiley's right eye). (Apparently, it worked; fabric's reopening in January.) This version of the symbol wasn't merely cute—it was defiant, and therefore resonates with the way smiley was used in dance culture to begin with.

The smiley symbol itself, of course, goes far further back—all the way to 1963, when graphic designer Harvey Ross Ball created the symbol for the State Mutual Life Assurance Company (now Allmerica Financial Corporation) in Worcester, Massachusetts. "[Ball] was commissioned to create a graphic to raise morale among the employees of an insurance company after a series of difficult mergers and acquisitions," Jimmy Stamp wrote in Smithsonian Magazine. "Ball finished the design in less than 10 minutes and was paid $45 for his work." That first smiley was slightly different that the one we're accustomed to now. In Ball's design, Stamp wrote, "the eyes are narrow ovals, one larger than the other, and the mouth is not a perfect arc."

The perfect symmetry we're now accustomed to came in September 1970, when brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, who manufactured novelty goods in Philadelphia, modified the smiley and put it onto buttons with a new phrase: "Have a Nice Day." By 1972, they'd sold some 50 million of these buttons. "That wasn't all," Jon Savage wrote in The Guardian: "There was an eruption of Smiley ephemera: coffee mugs, tea trays, stationery, earrings, keyrings, bumper stickers, bracelets, etc. . . . The Smiley was the perfect feel-good symbol of a moment when 1960s ideas of freedom, hedonism and experimentation hit the American masses."

The original smiley created by graphic designer Harvey Ross Ball in 1963 (Image via Smithsonian)

Smiley got another new meaning in the early 80s thanks to another symbol: the emoticon. At Carnegie Mellon University in Cleveland, the computer science department had an early online bulletin-board system—the precursor to the modern-day Internet—and on September 19, 1982, Scott E. Fahlman, a member of the faculty, wrote a message to the staff: "I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-). Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(."

By 1998, the emoticon would evolve into emoji, thanks to Shigetaka Kurita, who worked for Japanese telecom company NTT Docomo. "Kurita hit on the idea of adding simplistic cartoon images to its messaging functions as a way to appeal to teens," Adam Sternbergh wrote in New York magazine. "Kurita wound up with 176 crude symbols ranging from smiley faces to music notes."

The Spain brothers' "Have a Nice Day" smiley (Image via)

But smiley would take on a new meaning in November 1987, when Rampling set up a new night at, of all things, a gym in south London, then a virtual no-man's-land for the city's clubbing elite. One night, British journalist Louise Gray went to check out the new place. "I was sitting talking, and then this girl just appeared absolutely out of nowhere, plonked herself down on my knee, grabbed the corners of my mouth, and pulled them up into a smile," Gray told Simon Reynolds in his book Energy Flash. "She said 'Be happy!' and then jumped off."

That kind of happiness was contagious. Rampling had founded Shoom after visiting Ibiza that September with a handful of other British DJs who were then primarily devoted to funk and hip-hop; they'd gone to celebrate Paul Oakenfold's birthday. They visited the open-air bar Amnesia, dancing under the stars to eclectic, laid-back selections from the club's owner and resident DJ, Alfredo, all while high on MDMA. Shoom was Rampling's attempt to recapture the vibe he'd experienced in Ibiza—with a decided emphasis on the new house and techno sounds coming in from America. And smiley became Shoom's mascot.

The Shoom membership card (Image via Hyperreal)

"I picked up on the smiley face logo from a fashion designer called Barnsley," Rampling told Acid House: The True Story author Luke Bainbridge. "I ran into him one night when he was covered in these smiley face badges and I thought, 'Wow! That's it! The smiley face completely signifies what this movement is all about—big smiles and positivity.' I think we first used them on the flyer for the third Shoom, and everyone picked up on it." Reynolds also notes that the Shoom newsletter featured "crudely drawn cartoons like 'The Smileys,' a stickman-and-woman who strolled around London spreading love-peace-warmth vibes."

It didn't take long for the smiley to catch on as a symbol for acid house. In America, acid house was one of music, heavy on warping Roland TB-303 lines. But in late-80s UK, it was adopted as the name for the entire scene, particularly after the May 1988 publication of features in both The Face and i-D about Shoom and related clubs.

Other promoters began nodding to smiley as well. Among the late-80s British handbills at Hyperreal's Rave Flyers Gallery are the February 1988 party Discotheque, featuring a half-smiley, followed in August by Grin, which advertised itself as an "acid allnighter," featured just a smiling mouth full of teeth.

An Acid Fever flyer from the mid-90s (Photo by the author)

By the end of summer, entrepreneur and Shoom regular Tony Colston-Hayter would take the acid house from the clubs to larger parties in English fields and film studios, turning the Ibiza insiders' scene into mass culture in less than a year. His Sunrise parties London DJ Mr. C told Luke Bainbridge, in Acid House: The True Story, that Colston-Hayter's nickname became "Tony Cost-Inflator . . . after he copied the vibe, put these huge raves on, and jacked up the price. Colston-Hayter's Sunrise parties, such as that October's Sunrise Mystery Trip, offered a grinning and wide-eyed sun—a kind of fleshed-out smiley—as their logo. As acid house became mainstream, smiley became ubiquitous on consumer products. By the middle of 1988, smiley would bedeck British consumer objects the way the Beatles did in American in 1964: T-shirts, shoelaces, whistles. London tabloid The Sun even began selling "acid house" T-shirts (without smileys, notably) in its October 14 issue.

I used to have pants with smiley faces all over me. It was pretty bad.—Richie Hawtin

But after a series of ecstasy-related deaths in late 1988, a nationwide moral panic ensued. That October, wrote Sean Bidder in Pump Up the Volume. " Top of the Pops issued a moratorium on records featuring the word 'acid,' while TopShop banned the sale of smiley T-shirts." The November 1988 issue of the fanzine Soul Underground reported that "Burton menswear stores boss Ralph Halpern has banned all smiley T shirts from his stores, having belatedly discovered the drugs connotations of these insidious garments." And on November 2, less than three weeks after hawking its own acid house T-shirts, The Sun ran an editorial cartoon comparing the scene to a "trip to hell."

NME's acid crackdown cover from 1988 (Image via)

The parties, meanwhile, became targets for law enforcement. The November 19, 1988 cover of New Musical Express featured a police officer (actually NME art editor Justin Langlands in a plastic policeman's helmet) tearing a smiley face in half, over the headline "Acid Crackdown." The magazine's report mocked the tabloid press's preoccupation with the parties: " The People name the chap they claim is The Evil Emperor of Ecstasy—a 'baby-faced' dealer who enjoys a 'virtual monopoly' of the London scene. Let's hope he doesn't bump into the ex-boxer The Sun claim is the real 'Mr. Big of Acid' or even the organizer of Greenwich warehouse bash whom the News of the World tell us is the genuine 'King of Acid.' What did the dealers do before they latched onto acid house? Work for Oxfam, maybe? More likely they supplied the vast amounts of coke that the city runs on (strange how few police raids are made on stockbroker 'snorting dens')."

Evolution flyer from 1993 (Photo by the author)

In the 90s, raves began to get busted with ever greater frequency. On July 13, 1990, writes Haslam, Hacienda DJ Mike Pickering "was served an injunction restricting him from travelling to one rave," wrote Dave Haslam in Adventures on the Wheels of Steel: The Rise of the Superstar DJs. Another DJ, Rob Tissera, was spinning at a warehouse party near Leeds that got raided by riot gear-clad police. Tissera then "got on the microphone and said, 'Listen, if you want to keep this party going, we need to barricade the doors and keep the bastards out!'" Tissera was among the 836 people arrested; he was sentenced to three months' prison time.

But in the US, the rave was just getting started—and the smiley became a totem for the scene as a whole. In early-90s San Francisco, you could buy black-light smiley necklaces from local jewelers Do Not Eat at the Haight Street rave boutique Ameba (not to be confused with Amoeba Music). Richie Hawtin told RBMA, "I used to have pants with smiley faces all over me. It was pretty bad."

Acid Fever II flyer, Baltimore, mid-90s (Photo by the author)

By the middle of the decade, smiley stopped signifying general rave culture, and became synonymous with two specific musical styles. One was the 303-driven acid sound. A Hawtin-headlined party from this period in Baltimore, Acid Fever II, featured the Plastikman logo wearing a smiley necklace. The other, wildly different that smiley was associated with was happy hardcore. Beginning in 1997, the L.A. label Moonshine's successful mix series, Happy 2B Hardcore , helmed by Toronto DJ Anabolic Frolic, basically changed the color on the same computer-generated rows of smileys with each volume—yellow for the first, red for the second, etc. Another label, British ex-pat DJ DB's dance imprint for Profile Records, was dubbed Sm:)e Communications.

Sm:)e logo (Photo by the author)

These days, following the millennium's turn, smiley has largely been an agent of dance music's past. At Inner City's performance at the second edition of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now Movement), a video screen flashed a smiley face with the words "Remember 1989?" The brief mid-2000s "new rave" vogue (indie band the Klaxons hosting a throwback warehouse party, old-school house and acid samples by acts like Tomas Barford, Plasticman, and Digitalism) prompted XLR8R's then-editor-in-chief Vivian Host to write in the editorial of the January/February 2007 issue that the new music made "visions of smiley faces dance in my head."

Anyone who's gone dancing lately is likely to have had similar visions. Even in the teeth of a legal battle similar to the late-80s acid-house panic, the tweaked smiley used as the mascot for the #savefabric movement felt less like a middle finger to the authorities than nostalgia for a more carefree time. Granted, that time wasn't necessarily happier, even if it was more innocent. Still, looking ahead to 2017, we'll need all the euphoria we can get.

Illustration by Meghan Garvey

Follow Michaelangelo Matos on Twitter.

This article was originally published on THUMP.