A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who invented "white-out"?

January 10, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Would you please help me with these two questions? (1) Who invented "white-out" (Liquid Paper)?  (2) If the US invaded Canada what side would Mexico take? I was offered a free car if I can answer these questions.

(1) Liquid Paper was invented by Bette Nesmith in 1951. And yes, her son Mike was a member of the Monkees, a 1960s TV show.

Bette's story is recounted in Why Didn't I Think of That? by Allyn Freeman and Bob Golden. She was divorced and approaching a new secretarial job; she had learned to type on manual machines and now faced electric typewriters. (If you don't know what we're talking about here, ask your parents to explain.) A light touch caused letters to appear on the paper, and the mistakes from a carbon ribbon didn't erase. (If you don't know what a carbon ribbon is, ask your 'rents about that one, too; there's only so much info we can provide.) So Bette put some white tempera waterbased paint in a small nail polish bottle, painted over her mistakes, and voila!  Liquid Paper.

'Twasn't quite that easy, of course. She moved to another secretarial job with her little "white over" bottle, and other secretaries requested some for themselves. She labeled the bottles "Mistake Out." Friends and an office supply dealer suggested she market more broadly, and she changed the name to Liquid Paper and started to experiment with the formula.

In 1957, IBM rejected her product. Undaunted, she continued to turn out Liquid Paper one bottle at a time with the help of her son and his friends. By the end of 1957, she was selling about 100 bottles a month.

Over the next few years, word spread; by 1962, she was up to 5,000 bottles a week (having recruited part-time help) and by 1966 she moved Liquid Paper to a modernized production facility outside Dallas and produced 9,000 bottles a week, selling beyond just Texas.

Eventually, Nesmith hired marketers and sales and finance folk, and automation took over. Gillette purchased the company in 1979 for $48 million, when it was generating $38 million in sales.

Bette Nesmith died in 1980, at a young age 56, leaving about $50 million, half to her son and half to philanthropic foundations. Another American success story, a cottage industry operating out of a kitchen, growing to an international company.

(2) In a war between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico would take Mexico's side--that is, look to its own interests.

You win a car, least you can do is offer us rides.


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