A Pioneering Single Mom Created Liquid Paper, and It’s Been Fixing Typos for 60 Years Now

Delving into an invention that came with considerable obstacles

Liquid Paper endures, despite computers having replaced office typewriters decades ago. Raquel Beauchamp; Prop styling: Dianna McDougall

Bette Nesmith Graham was in a terrible fix. It was 1954, and the Texas Bank and Trust, where she worked as a secretary, had just replaced its old manual typewriters with new IBM electrics. Graham had never been a great typist in the first place, and the IBM machines’ feather-touch keys caused her to make even more mistakes. Worse, thanks to the machines’ carbon-film ribbons, the goofs were nearly impossible to erase.

Graham’s solution was of her own crafting: a little bottle of fast-drying fluid that, today, we know as Liquid Paper. The stuff has made the lives of millions of clerical workers tolerable. But just don’t take our word on that.

Forced to find work after a divorce, Bette Nesmith Graham (first) landed a job as a secretary at a bank in Dallas (center), where her mediocre typing passed muster until the bank adopted IBM electric typewriters (bottom left). Nesmith’s homemade corrective fluid, first called Mistake Out, became Liquid Paper (bottom right) and shortly took off. In the early days, Graham’s son, Michael (top right), would help with the garage-based manufacturing—but by 1965, he’d landed a new job playing guitar in The Monkees.
Dallas: Everett Collection; Michael: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“I have been in the administrative profession for years, so I recall Liquid Paper very well,” says Patricia Robb, keeper of the blog Laughing All the Way to Work. “It was a lifesaver. It was wonderful just brushing on the white Liquid Paper to magically remove a typo and correct it without anyone being the wiser.”

“When I discovered Liquid Paper, I was ecstatic,” adds longtime admin-turned-novelist A. Elizabeth Westmoreland. “Bette Nesmith [Graham] knew what she needed and, since it didn’t exist, she made it happen.”

Indeed she did, and she overcame considerable obstacles to do it.

Born in Dallas in 1924, Bette Claire McMurray married Warren Nesmith, her high school boyfriend, at 19. The marriage fell apart when Warren came home from WWII, leaving Bette to raise her son, Michael, on her own. Shelving her ambitions to become an artist, she found a job as secretary for W.W. Overton, chairman of Texas Bank and Trust.

The formula: Liquid Paper’s main ingredient is titanium dioxide, which gives it its chalk-white color and opaque coverage. Mineral spirits help it to dry faster. The blob: When it comes to covering errors, there are dabbers and there are brushers. The latter is better. Paper Mate suggests applying with a “smooth stroke.” The applicator: At first, Liquid Paper came with a brush, but clumping has since led to an upgrade: a triangular sponge that rests in the liquid.
Raquel Beauchamp; Prop styling: Dianna McDougall

Little did she know then, her artistic skills would wind up serving her in an unexpected way as she faced the smudged pages on her dreaded IBM electric. “An artist never corrects by erasing, but always paints over the error,” Graham later explained. “So I decided to use what artists use. I put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took my watercolor brush to the office. I used that to correct my mistakes.”

When her fellow typists began clamoring for her invention, Graham realized she had a thing going. In 1956, after tweaking her formula in her kitchen using an old blender (Michael’s chemistry teacher served as an unofficial consultant), Graham began producing Mistake Out, which she and Michael bottled at home by hand. After patenting the formula, Graham changed the brand name to Liquid Paper.

After Liquid Paper established a market, competition was inevitable. In 1966, office clerk George Kloosterhouse (with help from his friend Edwin Johanknecht, a waterproofer) developed a water-based corrective called Wite-Out, which has been owned by stationery giant Bic since 1992. Unfortunately for Liquid Paper, Wite-Out has become the generic term for correction fluids in general.

The rest wasn’t history—at least, not right away. In 1957, IBM turned down her offer to market the product. As far as her bank job, Graham lost that—over a typing error. On a letter she prepared for her boss to sign, she typed the name of her own company by mistake.

But it didn’t matter. By 1968, Graham’s own factory was cranking out 10,000 bottles of Liquid Paper a day. (Michael Nesmith had already found his own calling—as a guitarist for The Monkees.) Gillette bought the brand in 1979 for a cool $47.5 million.

Graham barely had any time to enjoy her fortune before her death less than a year later. But her invention endures, despite computers having replaced office typewriters decades ago. So why do people still use Liquid Paper? Well, the much-ballyhooed paperless office never really materialized. Plus, notes Brad Dowdy, Pen Addict blogger, Liquid Paper had fans far beyond the office world.

“We students used Liquid Paper more for artwork than actually correcting our work,” Dowdy remembers of his 1980s schooling. “Funny thing now is that I still see Liquid Paper being used more as art supply than a correction fluid. Some things never change.”

This story first appeared in the March 5, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.