Adair, Iowa's s plastic yellow smile face water tower.
A plastic yellow smile face water tower holds a place of honor among RoadsidAmerica.com souvenirs.

Smiley Water Towers: The Face That Launched a Thousand Sips

Hey, Mr. and Ms. Doom and Gloom! Terrorism, war, the economy, your cable bill... are they forming a foul, dark cloud over your life?

Flip those frowns upside-down! America is a happy land. The Smiley Face, that ever-optimistic pop icon from ancient hippiedom, proves it -- by enduring as a public symbol in an unexpected number of American towns.

The tallest structure in a community -- the steel water tower -- is painted bright yellow, the bulbous top adorned with a pair of black dot eyes and an upturned line -- the (un)trademarked, bracketed smile.

Most municipalities decorated their spheroid (or cylindrical) water storage tanks in the 1970s, when Smiley was still conceptually fresh. As a "safe" counterculture symbol, with absolutely no bite, the Smile Face water tower was a low cost way to radiate sunny greetings to travelers and locals.

Calumet City, Illinois: Fun To Look At

A congestion of congeniality.
A congestion of congeniality.

Calumet City, Illinois claims to have been the first, when 8-year old resident Kim Fornero sent a letter to the city council in late 1972 suggesting a smile face would be more fun to look at than a plain old water tower. In 1973, the deed was done. Whether it was Calumet City's example, or plain old morphic resonance, soon other towns broke out the yellow paint and spray guns to render their own Smiley Faces.

In the 1980s, America wanted to gaze on the benevolent face of trickle-down prosperity, even as things fell apart and little towns withered. Many enthusiastically embraced the Yellow One, and continued upkeep on the towers with a new coat of paint every few years. The Smile Face W.T.s came to symbolize hope for a better tomorrow.

Adair, Iowa: Smiley, The Friendly Greeter

In one case, Smileageā„¢ radiation engulfed an entire town. Adair, Iowa made "Smiley, The Friendly Greeter on I-80" its civic hero. A Happy Chef Restaurant and a Smiley Face Budget Inn stood at the Interstate off ramp, ready to "make you smile!"

Smiley Face Water Tower.

Local merchants printed the Smiley cartoon on their business cards, and displayed "Evening in Adair, Made with Extract of Ol' Smiley" shampoo in shop windows. Travelers could purchase a yellow plastic piggy bank replica of the water tower.

Whole towns continued to stake their identities on the smirking waterworks and were want to find another symbol more striking in life-affirming simplicity (only Home of the Albino Squirrels comes to mind). By the late 1990s, Smiley Face water towers had achieved a longevity milestone that assured survival. It didn't matter why they were built or what they meant -- they were now a part of history.

In May 2002, an unhinged college student was apprehended and locked up before completing a giant smiley face pattern across America with a series of rural mailbox bombs. The Smiley Face Bomber soon faded from the public's memory, and towns were again actively basking in the grins of their water towers....

Also see: List: Smiley Face Water Towers

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September 18, 2014

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