The Evolution of Liquid Paper: From a Simple Invention to a Lucrative Commodity

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Written By David Jay
A future med student, I write to learn.

Since the advent of typewriters and printing, virtually everyone has made typos in their work, frowned upon in academic and professional settings. Many simply retype the entire page or type over the error, but the former is simply tedious, and the latter is considered unprofessional. Using an eraser will also only smudge the ink across the paper, ruining the entire page. These are all tribulations faced by office workers before the invention of word processing software. One day, an exasperated secretary decided that she had had enough and decided to do something about this inconvenience, and thus, Liquid Paper was born.

Correction liquid allowed workers to bypass tedious reworks with a dabble, which is why Liquid Paper was so successful. Many corporations have been trying to reinvent how people fix their errors, with varying levels of success. In the 21st century, with word processing programs taking the world by storm, companies have to get creative on how they adapt this invention in an ever-changing market.

“I invented Liquid Paper because I wanted to make a better place to work.”

Bette Nesmith Graham

A Secretary’s Frustration

Bette Nesmith Graham was the owner of the world’s first correction fluid brand, Liquid Paper. (Source: Saint Mary’s College Adelaide)

After she and her husband got divorced, Bette Nesmith Graham was left on her own to raise her child, Micheal Nesmith. According to Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff, Micheal’s autobiography, he stated that financial troubles would cause Graham to frequently “burst into tears of panic.” Fortunately, she was able to secure a position at Texas Bank and Trust as a secretary when she was 30, and she was able to rise through the ranks quickly.

During her employment, typewriters were becoming commonplace in workplace environments as they would increase the efficiency and productivity of employees by theory. While many secretaries, including Graham, were excited to use them for the first time, they soon learned some hard truths. Firstly, the sensitivity of the typewriters’ keypads is high, resulting in more typographical errors. Secondly, utilizing a rubber will only smudge the ink around the paper, ruining it.

Frustrated, Graham was finding solutions to fix typos without discarding an entire page. Before her secretary career, she was an avid painter. According to the Hustle, she took the artists’ approach to the issue: painting over the error. 

Graham filled a little nail polish bottle with homemade fast-acting tempera paint which she brought to work every day to correct mistakes. It worked like a charm. Despite the success, Graham did not initially trademark her product, named Mistake Out, as she needed more funds to do so; moreover, she began a little business catering to fellow secretaries in secret from her employer in 1956. Eventually, Graham managed to secure a deal with wholesalers to sell Mistake Out and started hiring her first workers. Four years after Mistake Out’s debut, Graham made an accident that revealed her secret side hustle, resulting in her dismissal according to CNBC; it only gave Graham more motivation to perfect her concoction, which was officially trademarked as Liquid Paper in 1958 as we know it today.

“I think anyone who is making progress faces fear… overcoming fear is all there is to success. You have to face fears and doubts constantly. You keep doing it over and over.”

Bette Nesmith Graham

Erasing out Problems

Advertisements of different variations of Liquid Paper (Source: Pinterest & Iktva Forum)

After the success of Liquid Paper, many businesses found an opportunity to assert themselves in the lucrative market. For example, Wite-Out is the second most popular brand in the United States; it was used in commerce in 1966 and registered in 1974. While not as successful as the pioneer, it maintained healthy profits by adapting the formula to have faster drying times and be applicable to different mediums, such as copy or colored paper. Furthermore, as customers used correction liquids for long periods, some of the liquid began thickening, sometimes even solidifying. To solve the issue, Wite-Out manufactured bottles of thinner to liquify them. 

The 80s marked a major change in manufacturing and product standards. Original recipes of correction liquid often contain inhalants, namely 1,1,1-Trichloroethane which is a thinner and ozone depleter. It was frequently abused recreationally. According to Sciencing, there are concerns over the safety of correction liquids as the thinner is linked to cancer cases. To comply with new regulations and demands, many companies, including Wite-Out, came up with new organic formulas to substitute for toxic ones.

Staying on top of the correction liquid is a hard task, with numerous competitors at every corner. Many companies, such as Tipp-Ex (a popular correction fluid brand in Europe), have changed the brush to be a form applicator so that users have more precision and comfort. According to Medium, Tipp-Ex has expanded the brand beyond correction liquid as it has manufactured correction tape for typewriters, which cuts out the risk of toxication and time to dry.

Messing Up, Matching Up

Correction tapes are becoming a norm in the modern world due to their simplicity. (Source: Oh Happy Fry)

According to the Computer History Museum, the 80s saw a crucial change in computing technology as personal computers became more accessible and useful to the common man. Offices began introducing computers to employees for the sake of efficiency and automation, and paper-based records began to phase out. The correction liquid industry faced lower sales as a result.

Correction liquid brands must adapt to the modernizing market as people, mainly office workers, move on from using correction fluids. However, there is still a demand for it, namely from students, writers, transcriptionists, and even artists.

To keep up with these demands, a Japanese stationery company began manufacturing correction tape in 1989 according to Tombrow. The correction tape allows users to handle the device precisely and cleanly without drying or exposure to toxic chemicals. The product spread nationwide and soon globally. Furthermore, companies, such as Pentel, released correction pens for artistic mediums, such as oil and water-based ink.

In Closing,

In conclusion, the journey of Liquid Paper from a simple, homemade solution to a global commodity is a testament to innovation, perseverance, and adaptability. Bette Nesmith Graham’s invention, born out of necessity and frustration, revolutionized the way mistakes were corrected in written documents, offering a quick and efficient solution to a common problem. Her story is not just about the creation of a product but also a narrative of overcoming adversity, from her struggles as a single mother to facing the challenges of a male-dominated business world.

Liquid Paper’s evolution mirrors the broader shifts in technology and societal needs. As the world moved from typewriters to computers, the demand for correction fluids like Liquid Paper and its competitors such as Wite-Out and Tipp-Ex evolved. These brands adapted by diversifying their product lines, improving their formulas, and addressing environmental and health concerns, demonstrating the importance of innovation in sustaining business relevance.

The transformation of the correction fluid market also underscores the impact of technological advancements on consumer products. The shift from manual to digital typing reduced the need for traditional correction fluids, leading to the development of new products like correction tapes and pens. This shift reflects a broader trend in which industries must continually adapt to changing technologies and consumer preferences.

Bette Nesmith Graham’s legacy, therefore, extends beyond the invention of Liquid Paper. It is a story of resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and the continuous evolution of products to meet the changing needs of society. As technology and consumer habits evolve, the journey of Liquid Paper serves as a reminder of the enduring importance of innovation and adaptability in the business world.

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