Morale Savior

Matthew Alice:

Who invented the yellow smiley face logo? Is he a millionaire now?

— Smilingly Curious, via email

Some lucky people choose to make a living thinking up goofy, useless stuff to amuse the population and take up space in the landfill. Some of this stuff is trickier than others. The smiley face was complex enough to require two wacky brains to figure it out. Bernard and Murray Spain were makers of signs, stickers, labels, lapel buttons, and T-shirts, all to appeal to the population at large. It’s 1970, and times are tense and negative. Wars, protests, sit-ins. We were all in a frenzy. The Brothers Spain decided it was their duty to cheer us up, bring some peace, spread some love and happiness. Result? The black-and-yellow smiley face. Buttons, shirts, stickers, all with the Spains’ wish for a grinny world. The Spains did okay on the buttons but didn’t benefit from the decades of smileyfaciness that ensued.

But even the Spains admitted that there were other versions of the sappy sign that long preceded theirs. The one they invented was simply the design that seemed to stick best in our hearts. It is documented that even in the 1930s — a time that certainly needed cheering up — a smile-type design appeared in various ads, note paper, signs. They were limited, individual efforts to spread cheer and not worldwide phenomena like our smiley. One well-cataloged effort was by an artist who worked for an insurance company that was suffering from basement-level morale. Rampant in that industry, I’ll bet. They wanted something to pep up the staff and make customers all bubbly. Anyway, the designer developed a lapel button with a grinny mouth and thought he was through. But after a little more thought, he realized that the whole corporate-uplift effort could be sabotaged if people expressed their true feelings by wearing the buttons upside down. Adding eyes and a nose averted that potential embarrassment. But the design wasn’t yellow and it wasn’t our favorite smiley. That was devised by the Spains. And it’s reassuring that the history of the icon is so well documented, saving future archaeologists the trouble of decoding the little whimsy, speculating that it was a popular god or a tribute to a great political leader of the mid 20th Century.


Why is there a Governor Drive in University City? Did the governor used to live there or something?

— Just Driving By and Wondering

The key is the university part of University City. In the 1960s, La Jolla was a frenzy of college building. The campus of UCSD was close to opening. And the surrounding territory, now University City, was sprouting new buildings and roads too. To link the two projects, the developers labeled the main drags university-related names. Regents Road? The University of California is governed by a board of 26 regents. Nobel Drive? Plenty of laureates were then among the faculty. Governor Drive? California’s governor is de facto head of the UC Board of Regents, thus the chief dude in the UC system. He appoints most of the members of the regents’ board. But in fact the gov is rarely active in the school’s mundane activities, so somebody else routinely chairs meetings. Despite that, in University City, the jobs of governor of California and chief regent are honored with a few miles of eponymous asphalt.

Dear Matt:

My sister is getting to be a health-food nut, and her latest bright idea is that sea salt is much better for you than regular white table salt. She said it has a lot more nutrients in it, like vitamins and things. She also says it tastes better. All I know is that it is more expensive than regular salt and it looks awful.

— Food Freak’s Sister, Rancho Bernardo

Salt is salt is sodium chloride. Table salt is dredged from mines where dried-up oceans deposited it millennia ago. Once the dirt and crud is cleaned from the sodium, it’s packaged. The health-nut mantra is, salt loses valuable minerals when it’s processed. Sea salt, on the other hand, is gently and lovingly evaporated from seawater by hippies in Birkenstocks and not cleaned, preserving all its nutritional goodness. Well, sorta.

When salt is deposited in mines by retreating seas, the molecular components precipitate out at different rates. Sodium and calcium go first, then magnesium, then potassium. So, according to the you-are-what-you-eat crowd, cleaning the salt removes valuable minerals and makes processed salt closer to pure sodium chloride. Nobody seems to be able to test this in order to quantify how much magnesium is being flushed down the drain. But it’s clearly just traces that could be made up with a pill or a better diet in general. Foodies scorn processed salt for other reasons, which actually we have dealt with before. They savor the crud coating the salt granules as bringing a unique, savory taste to whatever it’s sprinkled on. French sea salt tastes like the French sea marshes. Hawaiian red salt tastes like Maui. Well, recently some of that French stuff was taken off the market because the water from which it was lovingly evaporated was, ugh, polluted. You’d hardly think “foodie” would be such a high-risk occupation.

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