How the Inventor of Liquid Paper, Bette Nesmith Graham, Helped Launch MTV
One December, in 1951, Bette Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper.
Graham was a single mother working as an executive secretary for the chairman of the board at the Texas Bank and Trust in Dallas. She’d risen to becoming executive secretary after impressing her bosses with her spirit; they even sent her to secretarial school to become a bona fide typist.
Trouble was, Graham wasn’t exactly a very good typist.
As anyone who binge-watched Mad Men will know, 1950s-era secretaries spent much of their time typing correspondence and other letters for executives. And a single minor typo had the power to destroy a lot of valuable time and effort.
In Graham’s case, her office had just switched over to the electric typewriter, which meant that, in theory, erasing mistakes was supposed to be simpler. But every time Graham attempted to cover up a mistake with her new electric typewriter, she would leave behind a mess.
That Christmas, Graham idly looked out the window to the bank across the street. She noticed a man painting a sign in the bank’s storefront. Any time he made a mistake, he’d simply run a streak of paint matching the background over the error to hide it.
That sparked something in Graham. As James Ward, author of The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession, explained it to NPR: “She thought, ‘Well, what if we just did the same thing with paper?’”
In a moment of ingenuity, Graham mixed up some white, water-based tempera paint at home in her kitchen blender. The next day, she brought the paint solution and a slender paintbrush to her office and put the concoction to work, painting over mistakes, letting them air-dry briefly, then typing the correct letter(s) over them. Et voila: Her mistakes were perfectly hidden.
Graham called her invention Mistake Out, and when her fellow secretaries got word of Graham’s ingenious solution, Mistake Out became an office phenomenon. But Graham didn’t think to sell her product for five years. Despite working nights and weekends with her son (and future member of the Monkees), Michael Nesmith, to fill up bottles in their garage, she barely broke even.
But demand spiked as her product became a notorious lifesaver for secretaries. In 1956, she coordinated a team to further develop Mistake Out—an office supply dealer, her son’s chemistry teacher, and a paint manufacturer— developing what then became Liquid Paper.
Things changed dramatically for Graham after that. Her garage business became a patented operation; one single mention in an office trade magazine drew 500 orders from across the country, and an additional 400 in three paper colors from General Electric. Business was booming, but Graham’s poor typing skills eventually got her fired from her day job, which she’d clung onto, when she accidentally typed her homegrown business’s name in a memo that was for her employer.
Free from her day job, Graham was able to focus on Liquid Paper. She threw herself full-force into the company, pushing its business from manufacturing 500 bottles a week to 10,000 bottles a day in 1968. By 1979, Graham sold the company to Gillette Corporation for almost $48 million.
Graham was wealthy and comfortable, and the success of her company allowed her to transition from businesswoman to philanthropist. She established the Betty Claire McMurray Foundation in 1976 and the Gihon Foundation in 1978; both were dedicated to women and supporting female entrepreneurship and artistic endeavors. Graham’s son Michael, meanwhile, had grown from being a garage-side assistant at his mother’s booming business to a pop icon and television star with the Monkees.
Graham died in 1980, leaving millions. But it wasn’t the end of her legacy.
At the time of her death, Michael Nesmith had started his own label, combining audio records and cassettes with videos. His 1977 hit, “Rio,” was accompanied by a video, thereby making Nesmith one of the first artists to create and release music videos as we understand them today. The “Rio” video was so popular that Nesmith launched a television program, PopClips, on Nickelodeon, which was a show solely dedicated to music videos. PopClips’ success led to the eventual creation of the MTV network.
And that is how the music video as we know it might not have existed without Liquid Paper.