Have you ever wondered where emoticons, or emojis, first came from?

Viner and Instagram video creator, Jig, has created this short but sweet video to tell the story of Smiley, the creators of emoticons.

The Smiley face may have been trademarked since 1971, but the smiley face’s history reaches much further back.

The History of Emoticons

So, quite incredibly, the first smiley face was found in a cave in Nîmes in 2500 BC, as well as other ancient sightings reported on cliff carvings in New Mexico. These remarkable natural occurrences of smiling faces started the simple and effective way of visualising a smiling emotion which we have all grown to use and love today.

Fast-forwarding thousands of years, we come across a smiley face used in a commercial setting. In 1953, it was used in posters for Academy Award winning film, Lili, as a simple black and white drawn design, similar to later text communication versions of the smiley face you’re all probably very familiar with now. The film advert was featured in the New York Herald Tribune and read “Today You’ll laugh : -) You’ll cry :- ( You’ll love <3 ‘Lili.'”

In 1962 the smiley face was put on a yellow sweatshirt as part of a promotion for radio station WMCA and worn by Mick Jagger. Then in 1963, the State Mutual Life Insurance Company used a yellow smile badge as a part of a promotional campaign.

In 1971, the news was full of depressing stories, so young journalist, Franklin Loufrani, was tasked with creating a new way of highlighting good news by Pierre Lazaref, France’s most respected newspaper editor. That Autumn, the hand-drawn illustration of Smiley was born, with its first publication in France Soir newspaper appearing on New Year’s Day in 1972. The promotion quickly gained traction amongst leading European newspapers, and Smiley soon started to expand its licensing program into a variety of innovative products and new categories. 

It was in the hedonistic days of the 1970s that we also saw the smiley face beginning its ubiquitous relationship with music festivals. Ubi Dwyer and Sid Rawle organised the Windsor Free Festival, which in many ways was the forerunner of the Stonehenge Free Festival. After only a few hundred people attended the first festival in 1972, the second festival in 1973 drew thousands of people. Dwyer was often seen promoting the festival with the Smiley face on walking billboards.

first smiley emoticons at festivals 1970s

In the 1980s, Smiley began to be globally recognised as an icon with the brand establishing its identity in pop culture, and becoming the universal symbol for dance music. With the likes of Danny Rampling printing it on club flyers, and then it later featuring in the logo for Raindance, a ‘man’ made up of logos representing dance music, including speakers, the peace symbol, and of course a smiley face for a head, the smiley face was firmly embedded within electronic dance music culture.

Fat Boy Slim continued the blossoming marriage between the smiley face and dance music during the 1990s, keeping the yellow icon alive on dance floors and festivals alike.

In 1997, the world was in the midst of a technological revolution. Text messaging and email were moving to the forefront of communication and Nicolas Loufrani started noticing people using expressive emotions made from punctuation marks (ascii emoticons). Hundreds of these had been created as an art form, but only 🙂 and 🙁 were really understandable and being used (remember first seeing it in Lili?). He started experimenting with his Smiley to create animated faces that corresponded to the pre-existing emoticons made from plain punctuation marks, and also to enhance them more for interactive use in digital. He sat down with his studio-based design team and created an online emoticon dictionary of emotions which became a collection of thousands of different icons sorted into these separate categories: Classics, Mood expressions, Flags, Celebrations, Fun, Sports, Weather, Animals, Food, Nations, Occupations, Planets, Zodiac and Babies (which you can see by clicking here). These designs were first registered in 1997 at The United States Copyright Office and then these icons were posted as .gif files on the Web in 1998, becoming the first ever graphical emoticons used in technology and leading to thousands of products being created under the registered trademark, SmileyWorld.

first graphical emoticons smiley

Today, emoticons dominate the way people communicate, transcending language barriers and different cultures, conveying emotions and providing humorous and speedy responses via smart phones. The Oxford Dictionary even named a pictograph as ‘word’ of the year in 2015 – as reported here! In today’s news, Facebook has recently given its ‘like’ button a makeover, adding new emoticons, ‘love,’ ‘wow,’ ‘angry,’ ‘sad,’ and ‘haha.’ After years of users calling for a different way to react to Facebook posts, the company finally launched Reactions, using emoticons that express different emotions in a quick and easy way – perfect for the mobile-first, time-poor generation, who want to acknowledge their friends’ posts in a simpler way.

Forever routed in spreading happiness and expressing emotions, emoticons are the playful, free-spirited and fun way to communicate. From its first days when the Smiley was used as a way to signal good news in newspapers, to its appearances at music festivals, to bringing people together through dance culture, later featuring in films (such as cult DC Comics movie, Watchmen) and then as a way to express yourself in digital communications, the Smiley emoticons stand for this key message: be positive, spread happiness and come together.