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.
“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.
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.
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.”