A display of Liquid Paper products from the Dallas Women's Museum Wikicommons

Dallas History

The True Story of the Dallas Secretary Who Invented Liquid Paper

The founder of the office staple started out as a single mother trying to make her life at work a little easier.

Spoiler alert: the contents of this blog post will answer one of the trivia questions in the May edition of D Magazine. It has to do with Liquid Paper and the Dallas secretary who invented it. Her name was Bette Nesmith — later Bette Nesmith Graham — a single mom who, in 1956, tried to find a simple way to make her life at work easier.

In her Richardson garage, Nesmith Graham mixed a concoction consisting largely of white tempura paint. The solution could blot over typewriter mistakes and dry quickly, allowing for fast changes. But it wasn’t the invention of the substance that was Nesmith Graham’s real genius. As this piece in The Hustle explains, it was her flair for marketing.

The Hustle’s story walks through Nesmith Graham’s life: her humble roots growing up near Dallas, a short-lived marriage, and her struggles as a working single mother (her son Michael would grow up to be a member of The Monkees). To make ends meet, Nesmith Graham got a job as a secretary at Texas Bank and Trust and quickly rose to the role of executive secretary.

In the mid-1950s, IBM released a new line of fast electric typewriters, but Nesmith Graham encountered two problems with them: they lent themselves to lots of typographical errors and the carbon ribbons were difficult to erase. So she whipped up her paint solution and began selling it to her colleagues in repurposed nail polish bottles. She called it “Mistake Out” and spent weekends driving around Texas pitching the product to wholesalers.

After some early success, Nesmith Graham refined the product with the help of a chemist, changed the name, patented it, and then aggressively marketed her concoction on TV. Sales took off. But as the Hustle points out, it wasn’t easy to be a female entrepreneur at the time. You’ll have to read the full feature for the backstory, but one thing jumped out to me. The female-led Liquid Paper company Nesmith Graham founded was well ahead of its time when it came to employee benefits, offering on-site child care facilities, an employee-owned credit union, affirmative action polices, and other progressive benefits.

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