Texas inventor answered every typist’s prayer
The female inventor of one of the most commonly used office products of the twentieth century changed the name of her creation from “Mistake Out” to “Liquid Paper” on May 7, 1968. Forty-four years earlier, Bette Claire McMurray was born in Dallas. She grew up in San Antonio, attended Alamo Heights high school and became a “war bride” at 18 when she said “I do” days before the groom was shipped overseas. Like so many wartime marriages, Bette McMurray Nesmith’s did not work out. By 1946 she was a divorced single mother and the sole support of her four year old son Michael. Upon his death in the early 1950’s, Bette’s father left his eldest daughter a piece of property in the city of her birth. She moved her mother, son and sister to Big D, where she took courses in typing and shorthand to prepare for a career as a secretary. Employment opportunities for women, even those who were white and had a high-school diploma, were limited in post-World War II Texas and the nation as a whole. They could become teachers, nurses, waitresses or office drones but not much else. Faced with such slim pickings, Bette Nesmith was happy to find a position as executive secretary for the board chairman of a downtown bank. Then overnight the standard manual typewriter was replaced by IBM’s electric model. Bosses were sold on the idea that the technological leap would improve the productivity of their worker bees, but they did not have to type eight or ten hours a day on the heavyweight monster. Nor did the men in charge have to correct mistakes, which in the past had been a snap with an ordinary pencil eraser. The carbon-film ribbon on the IBM made that quick fix impossible and forced women to retype the entire page due to a single error. Bette shared the frustration of the millions of other females, who typed for a living, but refused to believe nothing could be done. She remained preoccupied with the problem, until one inspired day in 1954. Bette, a trained though amateur artist, earned extra money for Christmas by painting holiday scenes on the bank’s pane-glass windows. Recalling her stroke of genius, she said years later, “With lettering an artist never corrects by erasing but always paints over the error. “So I decided to use what artists use. I put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took my water-color brush to the office. I used that to correct my mistakes.” Bette soon summoned the courage to put the mixture to the test. Warned by her boss to retype rather than attempt any kind of correction, she knew it could mean her job if she was caught. But the homemade solution covered the mistake and, after drying, could be typed over with no one the wiser. For months Bette closely guarded her secret out of fear she might be fired for insubordination. But a sister secretary noticed that she never seemed to type a page a second time and finally figured out what was going on. At first Bette tried playing dumb. When that failed, she hoped to buy the co-worker’s silence by giving her a small sample of her invention. She poured the white potion into a green bottle from a kitchen drawer and wrote “Mistake Out” on the label. It was only a matter of time until “Mistake Out” was the talk of the office, and Bette was besieged with requests. She whipped up ever bigger amounts at home in her blender and talked her teenage son and his buddies into filling an assembly line of emerald-colored vials. This went on for nearly four years with Bette working nights and weekends to keep up with the orders. Sometime in 1958, she either lost or quit her job – it is unclear which – and began making, bottling and selling her popular product full-time. When the laboratory outgrew her kitchen, Bette moved the operation into a portable metal shed in the backyard. With the assistance of Michael’s high-school chemistry teacher, she refined her formula and succeeded in matching different shades of stationary. In 1962 Bette married Robert Graham and together they crisscrossed the country demonstrating the amazing ability of “Mistake Out” to cover any typist’s tracks. Six years later, when she changed the name to “Liquid Paper,” sales had skyrocketed to 40,000 bottles a month. That was small potatoes compared to the annual output of a million bottles achieved less than a decade later. In 1979 Bette Nesmith Graham sold the Liquid Paper Corporation to Gillette for $47.5 million only to die unexpectedly six months later at age 56. Half of the former secretary’s fortune went to charitable foundations and half went to her son – Mike Nesmith. If that name sounds familiar, it is probably because he was a member of the made-for-television musical group The Monkees back in the Sixties. Autographed copies of “Murder Most Texan,” Bartee’s latest book, are still available. Order yours in the “General Store” at barteehaile.com or by mailing a check for $26.65 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.