A Brief History of The Smiley

The origins of the Smiley can be traced back as far as the origins of humanity. The earliest recorded use of the smiley pictogram is in the 14, 000 year old cave paintings at Scredda, in the south of England.

Here we find one, admittedly rough, representation of the face. It appears to be placed in the sky, almost sun-like, and shedding its radiance over a herd of bull or cattle.

Thanks to Professor Canesten for permission to use this image

This is the only use of the Smiley until the Roman times, although both Linear C and Fang Dynasty writings have smileoid characters. During this time it was used to represent the deity Bacchus, even becoming an adornment of the High Priests and Priestesses of Bacchus. This symbolic relationship lasted until the prohibition of Bacchanalian worship by the Roman Senate, in BC186.

Following this prohibition the Smiley disappeared from history until the middle ages when it became the symbol, "heureux le visage", used by quality French mistresses. Even Molière, in l'École des Femmes (1662), has the protagonist ask:

"Quel visage heureux brille de son coeur et la musique la peint-elle des mots?"

From the 17th century onwards the Smiley makes an appearance in a variety of art and literature, from Cervantez to bawdy Great War ballads. But it is not until the 1960s that the Smiley has its first wide-culture resurgence since the Roman period.

In the 1960's the popularity of a group of drug using degenerates changed the world for a decade. These 'Longhairs' or 'Hippies' believed in Free Love, Free Drugs, Freedom and Peace. What represented Peace to them was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the symbol of the CND movement was nothing other than the Smiley.

Some Hippies or 'Longhairs' in what appears to be a rug shop.

The cold war ended at the end of the 1980s. Global multi-lateral nuclear disarmament finally occurred in 1990 and CND was disbanded a year later. These changes in the cultural landscape left the Smiley a bastard symbol in a world becoming ever more populated by the New Icons of Commerce. The Nike swoosh, the Coke-Cola double swirl and the Irn-Bru slash became the dominant, if unholy, trinity. Smiley was left out in the cold.

Out in the cold but not for long. 1991 saw the birth of a new phenomenon which soon swept the globe. A youth movement unlike anything seen before; illegal parties, clashes with the police, protest and rebellion. All of this to a soundtrack of heavy proto-dance music that forgave the few and rewarded the brave. The future would never be the same; Grunge was here.

The Grunge Movement was an explosion that began in London but engulfed the planet. If Grunge had a flagship then it was the band Nirvana and if that ship had a flag then on that flag was the Smiley. Still fighting, only now for Grunge and all that she stood for. Even though Grunge lasted only 2 long months its followers refused to let go of the style and motifs that had made it so popular... apart from, that is, the Smiley.

In its 14, 000 year life the Smiley has had ups and downs, reverence and rejection, but what of the future? What will the next 14, 000 years hold for this, perhaps the greatest of all pictograms?

In an age in which corporations use symbols like slogans, something as particularly human as the Smiley has a special place. It represents the longevity of the human spirit, the passions of the soul and that most sacred of all things mortal, the smile.

(Orginally published in differnt times)