Friday, April 27, 2012

The Invention of Liquid Paper

The debut of Liquid Paper in 1956 developed by secretary Bette Nesmith Graham revolutionized the work of thousands of clerical workers in the nation's capital. Although I remember using it several years later at the Republican National Committee, we were strictly forbidden to use Liquid Paper, Ko-Rec-Type, even erasure at The White House.

Graham was the mother of Michael Nesmith, founding member of The Monkees. As a  single mother, she supported Michael and herself as a secretary at the Texas Bank Trust in Dallas. With the introduction of electric typewriters in the 1950s, she discovered that typos couldn't easily be erased. Her second job painting the bank's windows during the holiday season was the inspiration behind what is now known as "Liquid Paper." Graham noticed “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.” 

A coworker saw Graham using her homemade invention, and asked for a sample. Graham poured it into a bottle and labeled it “Mistake Out." Soon all of the secretaries began asking for samples. In 1956, Graham founded the Mistake Out Company, fine-tuning her formula in her kitchen blender. Michael and his friends helped fill the bottles. In 1957, she sold about 100 bottles a month. The story goes that Graham was fired from her job for a mistake she was unable to correct. By then, demand for the product increased to the point that Graham could afford to pay herself and hire part-time employees. In 1961, 13 years after developing Liquid Paper, Graham hired her first full-time employee. Of course, the rest is history. In 1979, Graham sold the company to Gillette for $47.5 million. She passed away in 1980 leaving her estate to Michael and charitable organizations. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Private Secretary" Actress Ann Sothern Comes to Washington

From 1953-1957, the character of Susie McNamara in the sitcom "Private Secretary" had become to secretaries what Lucy Ricardo had become to housewives: an icon. This was especially true for thousands of clerical workers in the nation's capital.

"The National Secretaries Association turned out enmasse Tuesday to honor Ann Sothern, currently appearing at the Casino Royal...and present her with a special ambassadorial citation for her promotion of the art of secretaries," reported The Washington Post on July 29, 1954.

"The delegation (85 women and 3 mere men) representing the Capital, Executive and presidential Chapters, dashed from their offices to the Casino at 6:30 p.m. for pre-citation cocktails with the platinum-haired actress. Her current avocation outside of nightclubbing, is appearing in a series of filmed TV shows entitled 'Private Secretary.'"

Ms. Sothern was in town performing a song and dance act. In the year following the debut of 'Private Secretary,' the character of Susie McNamara represented beauty, efficiency and "cool" working for a high-strung talent agent, Peter Sands, played by actor Don Porter.

"It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon and even in the Casino Royale I sort of expected to find TV's 'Private Secretary' slaving her fingers to the bone over a hot typewriter," wrote columnist Lawrence Laurent in The Post on July 29, 1954.

"Instead, I found Private Secretary Ann Sothern dancing and singing her way through a boogie beat number called 'It's Too Darn Hot.' There wasn't a typewriter or a shorthand pad in sight and Miss Sothern looked as strange without this equipment as Liberace without a smile."

Another reporter asked Ms. Sothern if she knew shorthand.

"That always embarrasses me," she said, laughing. "No, I can't take shorthand and my best typing speed is about 15 words per minute."

A celebrated stage and screen actress, Ms. Sothern did her due diligence in preparing for the role according to reporter Dorothy Roe in The Post:

"'Since the program started, I've worn only clothes that a secretary could afford. That's what I'm buying now. I won't pay more than $25 to $50 for any office outfit. For real bang-up glamor for after-office wear I'll stretch the budget maybe to $75 to $100.'

"Ann checked with all her secretary friends in and around the studio before she took on the TV role to find out just how a private secretary is supposed to act. Occasionally she still hits the wrong gadget on an adding  machine, or doesn't hit the space bar on the typewriter at the right time -- and then the mail pours in from girls pointing out her mistake.

"It's really quite a responsibility, playing this part just right," she says. "because there are so many secretaries, and so many wives whose husbands have secretaries. I have to be careful never to get too familiar with the boss, so as not to alarm the wives looking in."

"Private Secretary" was produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Balls' production company, Desilu.

In my final installment tomorrow celebrating the 60th Anniversary of National Secretaries Day in the nation's capital, I'll share a rags-to-riches story of a secretary in the 1950s who became a millionaire after inventing what would become a Washington secretary's favorite tool until the debut of the personal computer 30 years later.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

VP Nixon Receives National Secretaries Association's First 'Special Award'

On July 19, 1958, the National Secretaries Association presented Vice President Richard Nixon with their first special award "for recognition and understanding of the secretarial profession" at their convention in Minneapolis.

"A determining factor in Mr. Nixon’s selection for the award was his appraisal of the secretarial profession in 'Mr. Nixon Calls Himself Lucky,' in the Saturday Evening Post on Dec. 28, 1957," reported The Pittsburgh Press on July 11, 1958.
"Mr. Nixon Calls Himself Lucky" was a preface the Vice President penned to an article written by his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, titled "Nixon's My Boss."

Here's what he said:

"Next to a man's wife, his secretary is the most important person in his career. A top-flight secretary has to have an incredible variety of virtues. She has to be flawlessly proficient at shorthand and typing. She has to have the quite different skill of making hundreds of decisions a day for her employer -- and she has to know just what decisions not to make as well. She has to understand every detail of her employer's job; to have unquestioning loyalty and absolute discretion. Unlike her boss, she can never enjoy the luxury of temperament, no matter how tense the atmosphere, how long the hours. She is the balance wheel for the whole office. On every count Rose measures up -- and on top of that she's been a good friend to both Pat and myself. I'm a lucky man." Richard Nixon

Tomorrow I'll profile Best Actress nominee Ann Sothern who had an extraordinary impact on Washington secretaries in her role as Susie McNamara in the groundbreaking sitcom, "Private Secretary" produced by Desilu from 1953-58.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Girl Friday" Series, The Washington Post

A highlight of my adventure into the secret world of the Washington secretary was the discovery of the "Girl Friday" series which debuted in The Washington Post in early 1953. 

Initially penned by Estelle Sharpe Jackson, the column was created in response to the demand for "Girl Fridays." Here, they offer tips for getting the job, keeping the job -- and knowing when to fold your cards and leave.

"Smart Secretary Respects Taboos," July 24, 1953

"Absolute taboos, according to Stella, are sheer nylon blouses, dark-heeled hose, ankle-strapped shoes, 'anything that draws the attention to any part of the anatomy.'

"And -- 'no efficient secretary chews gum,' says she." 

"Nice to Work for a Woman -- Sometimes," Sept. 25, 1953

"If she's asked, Mrs. Peterson will tell aspiring young secretaries that hard work is necessary for advancement in the Government. . .

"She reminds older women that being adaptable is a very important attribute. 'You shouldn't try to do things the way you were taught whether the new boss likes it or not. I think that's one reason that people hesitate to employ older women -- they often become rigid in their ideas and are convinced that their methods are the only right ones."

"'Be a Doormat,' One Success Formula," Oct. 23, 1953

A veteran secretary offers 11 rules to "make your boss happier." The last three caught my attention:

"9. Do some light housekeeping each day. See that ashtrays are clean, pencils sharpened, fountain pen, stapler, cigarette box, lighter all filled and ready to use.

"10. Make a friend of your dictionary. Whenever in doubt about the use of a word, the separation of syllables or the correct spelling, stop and look it up.

"11. Be a doormat. If it irritates you to balance your boss's checkbook, exchange his wife's slippers -- look for another job. If you're not devoted to him, it can't work anyway."

Tomorrow, the 60th Anniversary of National Secretaries Day, I'll feature Vice President Richard Nixon who was the recipient of the 1958 National Secretaries Award "for recognition and understanding of the secretarial profession."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Looking Back: 60th Anniversary, Nat'l Secretaries Day

On Wednesday, Americans will celebrate the 60th anniversary of National Secretaries Day (National Administrative Professionals Day) as part of National Administrative Professionals Week, April 22-28.

Each day, I'm going to add a post to this blog to take us back in time to what it was like to be a secretary (aka 'Girl Friday') in 1950s-era Washington.

As background, National Secretaries Day was created by the National Secretaries Association (International Association of Administrative Professionals) founded in 1942 in response to millions of women who traveled to the nation's capital to support the war effort.

In 1952, secretaries were honored for the first time with a day all their own. 

Two years later, on May 27, 1954, government, business and education leaders gathered for a banquet at the Sheraton Park Hotel commemorating the second anniversary of National Secretaries Day.

Reporter Patty Cavin covered the event for The Washington Post:

"Rep. [Timothy P.] Sheehan, speaking on women in politics admitted he couldn’t be brave enough to define women but described politics as 'the good of mankind.' He referred to a recent Chicago poll which disclosed that women think and talk of three things only. . .men, money and themselves. 

“'If you don’t pay attention to politics, the men will go off to war, the government will take all your money for taxes and you’ll be left with yourselves. It’s bound to be a pretty dull world. Thus, it behooves you to take an interest in government and the men you send to Congress,' Sheehan warned the secretaries." 

Two years later, on April 6, 1958, anticipation for National Secretaries Day grew as The Washington Post touted the headline, “Washington Secretaries to Observe Their ‘Week.’” 

"The biggest date in the notebooks of Washington’s 'Girl Fridays' is April 23, Secretaries’ Day. It’s the highlight of Nationwide Secretaries’ Week, proclaimed by Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks for April 20 through 26. . ."

On April 21, 1959, Helen Austern of the Post reported on a ceremony at the Advertising Club in which Barbara Wills was named "Miss Secretary of 1959."

She wrote:

"Poised, brownette Barbara received her rhinestone studded crown from last year’s winner, Mary Smith of Huntsville, Ala. . .

"Contestants were judged by appearance, secretarial school record, a tape recording of their voice, and recommendations from their bosses, in the early rounds of the competition.

"Also at yesterday’s luncheon at the Presidential Arms Hotel, which honored members’ Girl Fridays, was Mrs. Rita Bento, secretary to Ad Club publicity chairman Basil Littin, who praised the Nation’s crop of secretaries. She said they can always be counted on for a cheerful good morning, a second cup of coffee, courteous reminders, and the touches that a female can add to any office."

What a difference 60 years makes. These days bosses, half of whom are women, make their own appointments on iPhones, while standing in line at Starbucks fetching their lattes. 

Tomorrow I'll discuss Estelle Sharpe Jackson's "Girl Friday" column published in The Washington Post in the early 1950s.