Did Mavis Beacon Really Teach Typing?
CULTURE | December 10, 2019
Mavis Beacon. Source: (Mental Floss)
With the rise of personal computers in the final quarter of the twentieth century also arose the need for many people with limited familiarity with the QWERTY keyboard to learn how to type. A lot of those people owed their new typing skills to a woman named Mavis Beacon. What many of them didn’t know was that no such woman existed and the smiling face gracing the cover of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! was a salesperson who had been paid to model for the fictional typing instructor.
Mavis Beacon’s story begins with the formation of a software company named Software Toolworks, founded by Walt Bilofsky in 1980. At the time, Bilofsky catered to a very niche clientele and had very little need for marketing. In fact, many of his software programs were sold in Ziploc bags. Around the mid-1980s, Bilofsky began working alongside his cousin, Joe Abrams, to create software for the general public. They merged with another company, Software Country, owned by Les Crane, to create Chessmaster 2000. Chess programs were popular at that time, but this was the first to give the computerized opponent a face, in this case, an old man hailed as a chess wizard.
Chessmaster 2000 was a hit, but it paled in comparison to the success of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!. When Mavis Beacon went into development, there was no shortage of typing tutorials already on the market. However, like the chess programs, they were all faceless programs with no aesthetic appeal. Companies like IBM and Tandy were often endorsed by celebrities but none of the software featured human faces on their packaging. Abrams and Crane capitalized on this opportunity.
It was while shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills that they happened upon the face for their new program. Renee L’Esperance, a Haitian saleswoman working the perfume counter, caught Crane’s eye. Abrams had his doubts as L’Esperance was sporting six-inch-long fingernails that would make typing impossible, but Crane was adamant. They paid her $500 and bought her a new suit as compensation for doing a photoshoot. The name, Mavis Beacon, was inspired by the singer, Mavis Staples, and the concept of the typing program as a beacon of light to would-be typists.
The company began taking orders for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! in 1987 and the demand was high. However, advance orders were cut in half when retailers saw the packaging featured a woman of color. One retailer in New York flat out refused to carry the product. However, after The New York Times published a positive review of the program on November 17, 1987, consumers began contacting the software company wanting to know where they could buy the product. Abrams referred them to the retailer who refused to carry it and before long received a call from the retailer’s buyer wanting a rush order.
Crane and Abrams never intended to deceive anyone into thinking that Mavis Beacon was a real person, but they didn’t go out of their way to correct any misconceptions. The Mandela Effect took over from there and before long Mavis Beacon took on a life of her own. Software Toolworks frequently received phone calls requesting an interview with Ms. Beacon or asking for her to speak at an event. Many people swear they remember her visiting their school or appearing on talk shows. A colleague of Abrams even approached him at a convention in 1988, congratulating him on scoring an endorsement from Mavis Beacon and claiming to have been trying to get her for years. Adams just responded with a shrug rather than calling out his colleague’s falsehood.
While L’Esperance returned to her home in the Caribbean shortly after the photoshoot, the Mavis Beacon cover continued to be updated over the years courtesy of Photoshop until eventually new models were brought in. In 1994, the Pearson group bought Software Toolworks and Abrams went on to work for Intermix, the company that launched MySpace. The fictional Mavis Beacon continues to teach typing to children; however, the software has seen a significant decline in popularity since the turn of the century.
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