Women of History: Bette Graham

February 27, 2023

Collage of Bette Graham holding a Liquid Paper bottle

Before the advent of computers, office workers used typewriters to create documents. And unlike today, correcting a mistake was a lot more challenging than just clicking a backspace or delete button on the computer. So when as a struggling single mother Bette Nesmith Graham (1924–1980) birthed an innovative solution in her home kitchen—which came to be known as Liquid Paper—she created an industry that significantly changed office work for the better. It made her a very successful businesswoman. 

But a more enduring story lies in the fact that this innovation did not stop at creating an office product. Graham was forward-thinking and a champion of gender equality. She developed a business model, inspired in large measure by her Christian Science faith, that valued fairness in the workplace and supported the employee’s well-being. According to her son, “She attributed all the success of her business and her great good fortune to her study and practice of Christian Science ….”1 

She was born Elizabeth Clair McCurray to parents Jessie McMurray and Christine Duval, who raised her in the Texas city of San Antonio.2 Her mother imparted artistic knowledge and skills that would prove influential in what followed for her in life.3 As much as she wanted a career in the arts, that option would not support her financially. Dropping out of high school, she married Warren Nesmith in her late teens. They had one son, Michael (1942–2021). But after Warren had returned from service in World War II, the couple divorced in 1946.4 As a single mother, Graham worked tirelessly to support Michael and herself. In 1951 she took a typist position at Texas Bank & Trust, and it was there that her product and business began to bloom unexpectedly.5 

Even while working as a secretary, Graham never abandoned her artistry. She also knew firsthand how erasing mistakes plagued every typist.6 Drawing on her artistic days and a familiarity with products such as paint and solvent, she recalled that painters often simply paint over their mishaps. And she realized that the same concept could be applied in the office.7 Concluding that her homemade correction fluid actually worked, she shared it with her colleagues. That in-office success, combined with the backing from a mix of industry experts, launched the arduous process of developing a truly marketable formula that would allow typists to consistently blot out their mistakes on paper, with minimal residue.8 Years followed in which she perfected her product, which she at first named “Mistake Out.” During this time she wasn’t able to afford to pay a patent fee.

According to a biographical sketch by the Gihon Foundation, Graham was a true entrepreneur:

Diligent research went into improving her product. At the public library she located a formula for [tempera] paint, and a chemistry teacher at St. Mark’s School helped her with her experimentation. An employee of a paint company showed her how to grind and mix paint. Michael Nesmith, her son, and his friends bottled and sold the product to office supply dealers picked out at random from the phone [book]. Stories about Liquid Paper in trade magazines brought in orders from all over the country and the first big order, for 300 bottles in three colors, came from General Electric. That was when Bette made the decision to only work part time as a secretary and spend more time in her kitchen laboratory. In 1960 her business was a bit in the red, but she persisted. After her marriage to Robert M. Graham in 1962, they both went on the road personally marketing Liquid Paper, travelling the southern and western U.S. That was the turning point. Liquid Paper was made.9 

At one point the bank fired Graham for signing a document under the name of her personal business. But that proved to be a blessing in disguise, because it provided the push to at last patent the fluid under its new name in 1968.10 

Graham moved her operations to Dallas in the late 1960s.11  Her success was not without its struggles; she often felt that she did not receive due respect because she was a woman. Michael Nesmith remembered a time when she expressed relief at hearing that he fully supported women’s liberation—a movement that was both prominent and controversial at the time:

It never dawned on me until I saw her reaction that she thought I might hold women in an inferior place in my thinking. With a mother like her, misogyny could not have been further from me. She daily demonstrated courage and fortitude and wisdom and strength, which I admired and emulated. She taught me how to be a man’s man. In the same way, she showed me the value of my own femininity.12 

In this way, Graham continued struggling for respect—even with those closest to her. When her second husband tried to push her out of the company after they had divorced, she fought for control and held onto it with a 49 percent stake. Three years later she reluctantly sold it and secured a royalty deal on every bottle of product sold for the next 20 years.13 

Bette Graham and colleagues posing while holding a rolled out blueprint

Bette Graham and colleagues, January 13, 1978. © 2023 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.

Graham’s artistic talents and persistence had transformed an ephemeral idea into a real-life product. But according to her own words, it was Christian Science that provided the needed guidance: 

It was the result of working out a problem of chronic lack in a spiritual way—through radical, spiritual means. I have had the hardest time getting others to understand that the company’s success was not because of an unusual ability on my part, but because of the direct effect of this clear recognition that Spirit [God] is substance—a recognition available to everyone.14 

Graham’s first encounter with Christian Science had come when she lay in a coma, the result of uremic poisoning, in the mid-1940s. Warren Nesmith was a Christian Scientist, and he had called on his aunt, a Christian Science practitioner. Her prayers for Graham resulted in immediate healing, and she embraced the religion herself.15 In 1953 she took Christian Science Primary class instruction. Later she became a Christian Science practitioner herself, listed in The Christian Science Journal from December 1968 until her passing in 1980. 

As her reliance on Christian Science grew, so did her success.16 The practice of it came to permeate her personal life. Michael once observed, “The spiritual sense my mother and her sister and her aunts and her family had around her is the notable thing I carry with me ….”17 His autobiographical work, Infinite Tuesday, speaks at some length about the central role that Graham’s religion played in her life, as well as describing his own significant connection with it:

Throughout Bette’s life I was as close to her as you might think a young single mother and son could be. Even after I left home at eighteen, we talked almost every day, several times a day. Every time we talked, some portion of that time was spent discussing metaphysics and Christian Science.”18  

This drove important aspects of how she ran her company. From secretary to board member, all employees were invited to contribute ideas in meetings. And Graham implemented benefits for the workers that were unprecedented at the time, including access to an employee credit union, a retirement program, on-site child care, and tuition coverage for continuing education.19  

In a 1978 interview with the Journal, she elaborated on how she came to conceptualize these benefits and the atmosphere of equality within her company: 

From the company’s beginning, there has been a long-range plan to elevate our practice of business—to see business as something more than the usual functions of manufacturing and getting the product to the consumer. I worked to base business on the spiritual value of man. The employee’s thinking has been the most valued asset, rather than the buildings and dollars. This concept has blessed the company, and has attracted very talented employees, but it demands that employees be treated differently than usual. It even means, for instance, that board members are not chosen for business acumen alone.20 

That vision also extended outside the company. Graham used her resources philanthropically, establishing the Gihon Foundation to help women in the arts, and the Bette Clair McMurray Foundation, to aid disadvantaged women.21  

As she explained in her Journal interview, Graham recognized the “spiritual value of man”—meaning each individual, no matter their position in life.22 She also recognized that it was the people who made her company successful. Through how she treated and valued her employees, she demonstrated a conviction that solid prosperity comes from respecting people and having faith in their expression of God, rather than material objects and profit.  

Bette Graham’s product and similar ones may now be considered obsolete, thanks to that easy-to-use delete button. But her qualities of tenacity, innovative thinking, business ethics, and personal faith are still very relevant in today’s world.

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  1. Michael Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (New York: Crown, 2018), 7.
  2. “Biographical Sketch of Bette Graham,” https://www.gihon.com/about.php
  3. Zachary Crockett, “The secretary who turned Liquid Paper into a multimillion-dollar business,” The Hustle, 23 April 2021, https://thehustle.co/the-secretary-who-turned-liquid-paper-into-a-multimillion-dollar-business/
  4. Andrew R. Chow, “Overlooked No More: Bette Nesmith Graham, Who Invented Liquid Paper,” WRAL.com, 13 July 2018, copyright 2018, The New York Times, https://legacy.wral.com/overlooked-no-more-bette-nesmith-graham-who-invented-liquid-paper/17694791/
  5. Chow, “Overlooked No More.”
  6. Crockett, “The secretary who turned Liquid Paper into a multimillion-dollar business.”
  7. Crockett, “The secretary who turned Liquid Paper into a multimillion-dollar business”; “Biographical Sketch of Bette Graham.”
  8. Nancy Baker Jones, “Graham, Bette Clair McMurray,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 25, 2023, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/graham-bette-clair-mcmurray
  9. “Biographical Sketch of Bette Graham,” https://www.gihon.com/about.php
  10. Zameena Mejia, “How inventing Liquid Paper got a secretary fired and then turned her into an exec worth $25 million,” Make IT: CNBC, 18 July 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/19/inventing-liquid-paper-got-a-secretary-fired-and-then-made-her-rich.html /
  11. Chow, “Overlooked No More.”
  12. Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday, 51.
  13. Crockett, “The secretary who turned Liquid Paper into a multimillion-dollar business”; Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday, 202–203.
  14. Madelon Maupin, “An interview: She built an international corporation on a spiritual basis,” The Christian Science Journal, October 1978, https://journal.christianscience.com/shared/view/2dx3ygra9to?s=copylink
  15. Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday, 48.
  16. Andrew R. Chow, “Overlooked No More.”
  17. Robert Wilonsky, “Dallas’ Monkee Michael Nesmith has something to say: That was then, this is now,” The Dallas Morning News, 25 August 2016, https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2016/08/25/dallas-monkee-michael-nesmith-has-something-to-say-that-was-then-this-is-now/
  18. Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday, 47.
  19. Tanya Tar, “How This Former Secretary Built A Multimillion-Dollar Corporation (Without Any Capital),” Forbes.com, 22 April 22 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyatarr/2020/04/22/how-this-secretary-built-a-multi-million-dollar-corporation-without-any-capital/?sh=33005be33cc5
  20. Maupin, “An interview,” Journal, October 1978.
  21. For background on the significance of the word Gihon, see Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society), 587.
  22. Maupin, “An interview,” Journal, October 1978.