Wikimedia // Public domain
Wikimedia // Public domain

How the Inventor of Liquid Paper, Bette Nesmith Graham, Helped Launch MTV

Wikimedia // Public domain
Wikimedia // Public domain

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.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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