Everyone knows that whiteout is the paint-like substance that heroically erases typographical errors and unselfishly allows the writer to start all over. Students are all too familiar with the product when they are required to turn in perfectly-handwritten papers. Secretaries and clerks also praise the miracle liquid because it saves them from re-typing important forms, letters, or contracts when they make one tiny mistake. Whiteout has become a worldwide office commodity.
Did you know that whiteout was invented by a woman who had worked as a secretary in the United States?
Since March is Women’s History Month in the U.S., it seems fitting that this issue’s history lesson would highlight a woman’s achievements.
Born in Dallas, Texas on March 23, 1924, Bette Clair McMurray had a dream to become an artist. School was a challenge for her and she dropped out of high school at age 17. Bette’s high energy and enthusiasm, however, were responsible for getting her first job as a secretary. Impressed by her attitude and work performance, Bette’s employers paid her tuition for secretarial school. At 19 she married Warren Audrey Nesmith who was drafted to fight in World War II, but they got divorced upon his return a year later. She had one son, Robert Michael Nesmith, who later rose to fame as a band member of The Monkees.
As a single mother, Bette Nesmith’s hard work at Texas Bank & Trust seemingly paid off when she became an executive secretary, the highest position a woman could hold at that time—but life had so much more in store for her. When IBM came out with its new electric typewriter, secretaries like Nesmith found it much easier to type. They quickly discovered that this typewriter came with its own set of problems and idiosyncrasies. The carbon-filled tape used in the new typewriter left black smudges when they tried to erase their mistakes with a pencil eraser, something they had used with old typewriters. They couldn’t find a cleaner-looking alternative.
Nesmith believed that there had to be a better way. She drew on her experience with art and observed how artists fixed their mistakes by painting over them with white gesso. The idea sparked when Bette thought that secretaries could also hide their typing errors. As a result, she experimented with mixing several colors of water-based paint, a.k.a. tempera paint, in her kitchen blender until the color matched her office letterhead. Armed with little bottles of her new invention and a watercolor brush, Bette Nesmith was ready to take on any and every minor typing error.
Bette tried to keep her invention a secret but her fellow secretaries eventually heard about the clever innovation and soon flooded her with requests for what she fondly named “Mistake Out.”
Realizing the potential of her product, she first presented the idea to IBM, only to be turned down. Rather than give up, Bette began her own home-based company in 1956 with the help of her son, Michael, and his friends who helped bottle and ship “Mistake Out.” She left her job to focus on her growing company. Bette was able to perfect her formula. She then acquired a patent and a trademark, changing the brand name from “Mistake Out” to what we all know today as “Liquid Paper.”
Bette’s product, in 1957, was mentioned in a magazine called The Office and as a result, hundreds of people placed orders. Corporations such as General Electric became one of her largest accounts. In 1962, Bette Nesmith married Robert Graham, who also shared her business interests.
The company eventually moved to a new plant where she hired employees and used machines that could produce 60 bottles of Liquid Paper per minute. In that year, Bette sold 1 million bottles and increased that number to 5 million bottles just two years later.
By the time Bette Nesmith Graham sold her company to the Gillette Corporation in 1979 for $47.5 million USD, the company produced over 25 million bottles a year, distributed Liquid Paper in 31 countries, and had a net profit of over 1.5 million dollars a year. Bette was an admirable entrepreneur and fostered a collective work environment by allowing her employees to voice their opinions and participate in business decisions. She used the royalties from her formula to establish the Gihon Foundation and the Bette Clair McMurray Foundation, which supported women’s welfare and promoted the arts in business.
Bette Nesmith Graham devoted her life to an invention she believed in. Never in her wildest dreams did Bette anticipate that Liquid Paper would become a worldwide success.
What a difference an unpretentious-looking bottle made. Liquid Paper revolutionized office lifestyles, helping save valuable time and increase the work force’s productivity.
I’d like to take some time to just say, “Thank you, Bette!” (Jackie)
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