Bette Nesmith Graham: Innovator

Entrepreneur Bette Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper, a product that improved the work lives of millions of women. Then armed with the fortune the invention brought her, Graham created two foundations to help women improve their personal lives, too.

Graham, who died May 12, 1980, at 56, described herself as a "feminist who wants freedom for myself and everybody else," according to her biography on the Texas State Historical Association website. With March 23 marking the 90th anniversary of her birth, it's time to take another look at this lesser-known feminist icon.

"Dallas has had its share of outstanding business and professional women, but never has there been anyone else quite like Bette C. Graham," says Graham's biography on the website of her Gihon Foundation. "Courageous, bright, innovative, persistent, she proved that a woman could make it in the business world."

The Texas-born Graham married Warren Nesmith at 19 and worked as a secretary during the day while studying for her GED diploma at night. She and her husband divorced after World War II, leaving her a single parent to her son, Michael. (He would later gain fame as the guitarist with the Monkees.)

"Nesmith had not actually wanted to be a secretary. She was much more interested in art, and in her free time she dabbled in painting and drawing," according to a profile of Graham on the Lemelson-MIT Program website (web.mit.edu). But she was good at her work, and she rose through the ranks at Texas Bank & Trust until she became executive secretary to the chairman of the board by 1951.

The electric typewriter was growing in popularity at this time. While the new machines allowed for quicker typing, the ink was difficult to erase in the event of mistakes.

Graham decided to employ one of her art tricks in the office. She realized, she later said, that "with lettering, an artist never corrects by erasing, but always paints over the error. So I decided to use what artists use. I put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took my watercolor brush to the office. I used that to correct my mistakes."

Graham's technique worked so well that other secretaries began asking for some of her mixture, which she called "Mistake Out." Graham began to sell the bottles, hiring her son and his friends to fill bottles.

"Graham continued experimenting with the makeup of the substance until she achieved the perfect combination of paint and several other chemicals," according to Women-Inventors.com. She renamed the refined product Liquid Paper and applied for a patent and a trademark in 1958.

"I didn’t have a fellow at the time, so I had to do it all myself. I had to … appreciate that as a woman, I was strong, complete, adequate," Graham said, according to the National Women's History Museum website.

Graham's business continued to grow and flourish. By 1975, Liquid Paper was being sold in more than 30 countries and had a 35,000-square-foot headquarters in Dallas. Graham "was innovative in establishing her company culture, encouraging employees to participate in making corporate decisions and setting up an in-plant library and child-care center," according to the Lemelson-MIT website.

In 1979, Graham sold Liquid Paper to the Gillette Corp. for nearly $48 million. "Bette Graham later regretted her decision to leave, saying that she would not have done so had she realized that her corporate philosophy would not survive her absence,” according to the Texas State Historical Association. “She said she built her company to foster the cultural, educational, and spiritual development of its employees. To this end, she designed company committees composed of a cross-section of employees and urged their participation in decision-making processes. She also helped design the company's plant and office complex to foster communication and comfort as well as productivity.”

Graham used part of her fortune to establish two foundations "to support women's welfare and to further their efforts in business and the art," the TSHA website says. Through the foundations, Graham supported projects such as career guidance for unwed mothers, shelter and counseling for battered women, and college scholarships for mature women.

Graham died less than six months after selling her business. Her Gihon Foundation still exists today, providing emerging and established artists with funding to put on live performances that are open to the public and free of charge.
 

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."