The Secretary who invented Liquid Paper!

From Secretary to Superwoman – Bette Nesmith Graham – Inventor of Liquid Paper

The story of the humble bottle of correction fluid reads surprisingly like a heroic tale of triumph over conformity.

Bette Nesmith Graham was an artist like her mother, but life was about to hand her an unexpected future. She married Warren Nesmith young. He promptly went off to fight World War II and when he was back and the world seemed safe again, they were divorced. The young artist, and now single mother of a boy, found herself painting decidedly outside the canvas she’d imagined.

Having to support herself and a child, she continued to be a freelance designer and artist, designing letterheads and painting murals on the side. She realized though that art would not be the answer to all her woes, so she accepted a job as a secretary in the height of the 1950s secretarial boom.

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Vocational Guidance: Women at typewriters, Image – Wikimedia Commons

Women were joining the workforce in droves and were being held to ridiculously exacting standards of conduct as secretaries, which was bound to have been a dampener for this artist-at-heart. To add to the drudgery of the 9-to-5, Bette was not very precise with the typewriter. She found herself desperately trying to erase errors, smudging office documents to destruction and regularly starting on them all over again.

Since Undo hadn’t been invented yet, she tapped into her love of art to borrow an age old technique, painting over errors. In 1956 she was carrying white tempera paint and a brush with her to work and painting over her typos. When she noticed that her boss wasn’t catching the corrections, she knew she was on to something.

Undo Assorted 4.2mmx6m Correction Tape 1
Undo Correction Tape

Bette retreated into her home kitchen and experimented with various mixes of tempera paint in her blender to develop the first correction fluid. Soon she was putting the magical substance into discrete nail polish bottles to sell to her colleagues at work. The bottles not only came with a brush but would also go unnoticed in the hands of a secretary. She labeled them Mistake Out and later on changed the name of her product to “Liquid Paper” and filed for a patent.

Image: NY Times

What started in her kitchen would move into her garage, with her son and his friends becoming her first bottling plant team. Eventually she would have a factory and a multi-million dollar business, after she was fired for signing a letter off with Mistake Out Co. at her bank job by mistake. But that and the story of how she won back her company from a take over is perhaps best saved for a sequel. After all, Bette was all about the second chances.

Bette Nesmith Graham, center, in 1978. Image: NY Times

Watch Inky Memo reviews of common and uncommon stationery objects to erase mistakes,

  1. Nataraj 621 Plasto Eraser –
  2. Faber-Castell Kneaded Eraser –

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