2018-07-30 06:10:50 UTC
Overlooked No More: Bette Nesmith Graham, Who Invented Liquid Paper
A struggling secretary created a concoction that relieved her and others around the world from the pressure of perfection.
Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.
By Andrew R. Chow
Bette Nesmith Graham didn’t tell anyone about the first few bottles of her whitish concoction. She had mixed it in her kitchen blender and poured it into nail polish containers, then hid it in her desk, furtively applying it only when needed to avoid the scrutiny of a disapproving boss.
In due time, her mix would be in virtually every office desk and supply cabinet around the world. The substance was Liquid Paper, the correction fluid that relieved secretaries and writers of all stripes from the pressure of perfection.
Graham later brought it to market and was soon leading an international business, based in Dallas, that produced 25 million bottles of Liquid Paper a year at its peak, with factories in Toronto and Brussels. She would sell the company for $47.5 million in 1980 and donate millions to charity — six months before she died at 56.
But in 1954, Graham was a divorced single mother supporting herself and her son from paycheck to paycheck, earning $300 a month (about $2,800 in today’s money) as a secretary for a Texas bank. She was a bad typist to boot. And then she was forced to use a new typewriter model which had sensitive key triggers and a carbon ribbon instead of one made of fabric. The typos piled up, and when she tried to use an eraser, carbon ink would smear all over the page.
Graham was also an artist who observed that painters covered up mistakes not by erasing their work, but by painting over them.
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So she sneaked some fast-drying white tempera paint into work and concealed her typos with a watercolor brush. This was much faster and cleaner than an eraser, and barely noticeable on the page. Soon the other secretaries wanted their own supply, and she found herself staying up late, filling bottles in her kitchen.
Bette Clair McMurray was born in Dallas on March 23, 1924. Her mother, Christine Duval, was an artist and a businesswoman who opened her own knitting store and taught Bette oil painting. Her father, Jesse McMurray, worked at an automotive parts store.
Bette was passionate about painting and sculpting, if not particularly skilled. “When I found out that talent wouldn’t support me, then I realized that I would have to give that up,” she said in interview for the Business Archives Project at North Texas State University in 1980.
She left school at 17 to become a secretary and married her high school sweetheart, Warren Nesmith, two years later. When Nesmith went off to fight in World War II, Bette was pregnant with a boy. The son, Michael Nesmith, would find fame as a member of the rock band the Monkees.
The marriage ended in divorce shortly after he returned, in 1946.
Graham — the name she took after a subsequent marriage — struggled to make ends meet, taking on side jobs like painting lettering on bank windows, designing letterheads and modeling furs.
“She would often burst into tears of panic,” Michael Nesmith wrote in his autobiography, “Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff” (2017).
Graham’s invention of correction fluid gave her a glimpse of a potential way out of her troubles, and she tried to form a business, calling it the Mistake Out Company, but could not afford the $400 patent fee. She moved forward anyway, poring over books in the public library to study formulas for tempera paint, and working with a chemistry teacher to improve the consistency of her product.
“Our lab is working on a faster drying solution,” Graham wrote to one customer (the “lab” being her kitchen and her blender).
Every evening she returned home from work to tinker with the formula, write letters to potential buyers and send samples.
“During that time, I often became discouraged,” she told the magazine Texas Woman in 1979. “I wanted the product to be absolutely perfect before I distributed it, and it seemed to take so long for that to happen.”
She solicited wholesalers and traveled from Dallas to San Antonio and Houston on weekends to market her product.
Her first employees were her teenage son and his friends. For a dollar an hour, they worked out of her garage, using plastic ketchup bottles with funnel-like spouts to squeeze the substance into small nail polish bottles, applying labels by hand and cutting the tips of the brushes inside the caps at an angle.
Graham became so devoted to her venture that she accidentally signed a letter at her job with the notation “The Mistake Out Company.” She was promptly fired, giving her a chance to become a full-time small business owner in 1958. That year she applied for a patent and changed the name to the Liquid Paper Company.
Graham’s product began to catch on. She was written about in an office supply magazine, had a meeting with I.B.M. and received a large order from General Electric.
Each new breakthrough required more employees and more space. She moved her operation from her kitchen to a trailer, then to a four-room house, and finally to shiny new headquarters in downtown Dallas. In 1968, she opened an automated plant. By 1975, Liquid Paper was producing 25 million bottles a year and holding a vast share of a multimillion-dollar market that had spawned several competitors, like Wite-Out.
Bette Graham was now wealthy, with fabulous jewelry and a Rolls-Royce. She established two foundations, the Gihon Foundation, which gave grants and financial support to promote women in the arts, and the Bette Clair McMurray Foundation, which did the same for women in business.
But her wealth and influence came with setbacks. In 1962, Graham married a frozen-food salesman, Robert Graham, who took an increasingly active role in the company, including a seat on the board. In 1975 they went through an acrimonious divorce.
The bitterness remained, and Robert Graham maneuvered to have the company bar her from making any corporate decisions.
“They wouldn’t let me come on the premises or let anyone there have anything to do with me,” Bette Graham said. To add insult to injury, they tried to change the very formula for Liquid Paper, thus removing her right to royalties from it.
Amid the power struggle, and despite declining health, Graham managed to wrest back control of the company and engineer its sale to Gillette for $47.5 million in 1979 in a deal that restored her royalties. She died on May 12, 1980, of complications of a stroke.
She left her fortune to her son, who took over her foundations and continued to dole out money to striving women.
“Most men are ignorant — they don’t really understand,” she said in an interview with the Business Archives Project in 1977. “And so women have to just keep on with their determination and be relentless. We have to not relent.”