Responding to the release of “On the Beach:” Early use of emojis

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

An earlier post discussed the U.S. Government’s preparations for dealing with international reaction to the 1959 motion picture On the Beach. That film depicted the post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear war.  It was the first major movie about nuclear conflict and threatened to stir up international sentiment against war and nuclear weapons.

In response to the significant advanced publicity the film received, the United States Information Agency (USIA), the U.S. Government’s propaganda arm, issued the December 4, 1959, “INFOGUIDE” (information guidance) included in the earlier post.  That document provided directions to its overseas posts on how to handle questions and comments about the picture.

Recently, while searching for something else, I ran across the Department of State’s file copy of the INFOGUIDE.  The Department had been involved in its preparation and so received a copy of the final document.  Markings on the Department’s copy are of interest.  The first sentence of the actual guidance in the document reads “Our attitude should be one of matter-of-fact interest, showing no special concern; it should reflect the fact that the issues raised by the film are not new, but have been articulated by thoughtful people over more than a decade.”  The words “matter-of-fact interest” are underlined and above them are the following hand-drawn images:

line of faces drawn in pencil in the style of happy/surprised/sad/blank face emojis
INFOGUIDE 60-24, Dec 4, 1959 (detail) (NAID 302021)

What is significant here is that these are not just drawings of funny faces.  The person who did this was conveying the possibility of several different emotional responses.  In other words, these are early examples of the now-commonplace emoji.

Source: INFOGUIDE 60-24, December 4, 1959, file 811.452/12-459, 1955-59 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.