Smile, You’re in Hungary Now!

In Hungary

Photo by ollyy / Graphic by Igillustrator /

If you see rather more people on the streets of Budapest beaming from ear to ear today (Friday, Oct. 6) than usual, it’s because today is World Smile Day, and Hungary is one of the countries grinning for good.

World Smile Day is the brainchild of Harvey Ball, a commercial artist from Worcester, Mass., who created the internationally recognized bright yellow smiley face in 1963. In 1999, worried that Smiley had become too commercialized, Ball announced that the first Friday in October would become National Smile Day, devoted to, as the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation website puts it, “smiles and kind acts throughout the world.”

Smiley came about when the State Mutual Life Assurance Company had a morale problem after it purchased Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio to join forces with Worcester Mutual Fire Insurance Company, which State owned. The company asked graphic artist Ball to create a smile to be used on buttons, desk cards and posters.

It took him 10 minutes to create Smiley, and he was paid USD 240, all he ever received for his creation. Mind you, that was better than some feared. Writing in Smithsonian Magazine, Jimmy Stamp claimed that Ball was only paid USD 45.

In time, Worcester Mutual Fire Insurance morphed into the Worcester Insurance Company, which still uses Smiley in its marketing.

Previous smileys may have inspired Ball. In a fascinating online article, the U.K. graphic designer Paul Hillery suggests that the image of a smiling face with slashes for eyes and mouth dates back centuries before the birth of Christ.

A smiling face that looks a lot like Smiley was part of the logo for the early 1960s U.S. TV show “The Funny Company.” In 1962, a New York radio station gave away thousands of sweatshirts featuring a funky image that looks very much like Smiley with the slogan “WMCA good guy.” (DJs at WMC were known as the Good Guys.) Hillery has even tracked down an image of Mick Jagger wearing one of these yellow smiling face sweatshirts.

The Spain Smiley

In 1970, Philadelphia brothers and novelty goods manufacturers Bernard and Murray Spain began making Smiley buttons with the phrase “Have a nice day.” By 1972, 50 million had been sold. Jon Savage wrote in The Guardian, “That wasn’t all. There was an eruption of Smiley ephemera. [….] The Smiley was the perfect feel-good symbol of a moment when 1960s ideas of freedom, hedonism and experimentation hit the American masses.”

Wearing a Smiley button was also highly likely to have originally been a secret badge of hipness associated with ingesting certain substances likely to mellow one out. In the early 1970s, barely into my teens, I had a Smiley patch sewn onto my denim jacket. I must have seen an older hippy type and thought it was seriously cool.

Because of these associations, Smiley reappeared around the time of what’s called the Second Summer of Love, the period in the late 1980s when rave culture and acid house exploded in the United Kingdom before spreading throughout the world.

In 1987, after DJ Danny Rampling had seen the musical light in Ibiza, he set up his revolutionary club Shroom on the island. Smiley became the club’s mascot. Rampling told writer Luke Bainbridge, “I picked up on the smiley face logo from a fashion designer called Barnsley. 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 about: big smiles and positivity.”

Other clubs began using a modified Smiley, and when acid house went above ground in the United Kingdom around the middle of 1988, he became ubiquitous all over again.

In 1988, Smiley became an emoji. Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of Japanese telco NTT Docomo, “hit on the idea of adding simplistic cartoon images to its messaging functions as a way to appeal to teens,” wrote Adam Sternbergh in New York magazine. Smiley was one of them.

For what it’s worth, I’d always assumed that Nirvana’s adoption of a warped Smiley was a reaction to acid house and inane emojis. But apparently, it’s meant to suggest the warped state of Nirvana that listening to the band can take you to.

The French Smiley

No doubt to their everlasting chagrin, the Spain brothers didn’t trademark Smiley. That was done by French journalist Franklin Loufrani, founder of the Smiley Company. In 2017, the company, based in Britain, was responsible for 210 million products. Smiley had 97% recognition globally.

I did ask my Hungarian partner, a Nirvana fan, if she remembers Smiley from her childhood growing up in the communist era, but she doesn’t. Presumably, although Smiley went global, he (she, they?) didn’t make it inside the Soviet Bloc. This could have something to do with Hungarian attitudes to smiling.

When I first came to Hungary, my partner and I frequently visited our local sauna. Being a polite Brit, used to smiling my way into (and sometimes out of) any situation, I would smile as I climbed into the cabin. At some point, unable to stand it anymore, my partner hissed, “Don’t smile! They think you’re stupid. Hungarians don’t smile for no reason.”

Although I was a little insulted at the time, I have come to appreciate the fact that if I don’t want to smile out of politeness, I don’t have to. Hungarians save their smiles for when they need them, it seems.

According to this year’s Smiling Report, Hungarian salespeople greeted customers with a smile 93.8% of the time. In startling contrast, U.K. salespeople were among the lowest scoring, only smiling 75.6% of the time.

It would appear, perhaps, that under the circumstances, Hungarians don’t need World Smile Day to encourage them to beam at strangers.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of October 6, 2023.

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