Growing up in 1960’s America, one of my favourite treats when grocery shopping with my mother was to wangle a penny to keep in my pocket until it was time to leave the store. Just as she would be paying the clerk, I would run to peruse the colourful display of gumball machines. The choice could not be made lightly. Some of the glass domes were square, some were round, some contained only brightly coloured gumballs and some were a mix of gumballs and little plastic novelties like pin badges and lucky charms. If the spirits were with me, I might even be lucky enough to get a gumball and a surprise! Once the choice was made, I placed my penny in the slot, turned the crank and quickly lifted up a small door. As I placed my hand under the opening, whatever had come down the chute would pop into my open palm.
The best prizes were the plastic pin badges and pin buttons. Sometimes they were the round button style badge that had a peace sign or funny cartoon figure printed on them. Other times they might be solid-colour plastic animal pins or funny faces. No matter what it was, even if it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, the treasure would be placed in a small cardboard box with all the others to be looked at and played with. Sometimes, the playing neighbourhood kids even traded the prizes with other kids in the neighbourhood.
The pin badges and other novelties might have seemed inconsequential to most people, and those people were completely wrong. Gumball machines were a staple. They were in most retail businesses and everyone, adults and children alike, used them. After all, even grownups like a piece of gum once in a while. There are many stories about the marketing coups of the lowly gumball machine, but one of the biggest is how the “smiley face” pin button came to be the most sought after gumball prize, a fashion accessory, and icon in America.
The image was two black dots for eyes and a simple curved line for a smile on a yellow background. In early 1971, the roller skating rink I frequented had penny, nickel, dime and quarter gumball machines. In the quarter machines, you didn’t get gum but you got a prize in a plastic container.
If you were supremely lucky, you got the one-chance-in-twenty container with the smiley face pin button! That happy little face captivated the world for a short time and I like to think that gumball machines had something to do with it. After all, not everyone could be the lucky one-in-twenty recipient of a smiley face button. To answer the call of a demanding public, manufacturers began producing and selling the buttons in stores. For a short time in American history, happy faces were everywhere.