Ghost Letters

Reading Between the Lines of a Writing Slate

Occasionally, objects that are handed down to us from previous generations keep their life stories secret, hiding who made or used them. But, a few feint scratchings and ghost letters can reveal a few clues.

The combination of permanent writing lines incised into the slate and the remnants of letters written in chalk confirm that this was indeed used for practising handwriting. Carved indents along the timber frame at the bottom edge suggest this section might have been recycled from another object like a picture frame or a small mirror.

Typical of objects from the mid to late nineteenth century, where making-do was common practice, there is some damage and ad hoc repairs. The letters ‘E l’ scratched into the first line hint that a child might have naively used the wrong implement to begin writing while the addition of twisted wire holds together the frame’s corner

Before the mid-twentieth century, the scarcity of writing paper meant slates were regularly used in school rooms. But ironically, Jack Nicholson (1908-1996), the man who collected this slate for his museum of historical curiosities at Lake Tabourie, never went to school.

Jack was one of several children in a family with limited means. Their lives were tough, and at the age of 11, he went to work on Dulla Dulla Station, at Narromine. However, it was possible that he received some schooling at home, including learning to write. For all we know, this might have been Jack’s family slate, scratched and repaired, and passed between the generations. Are the ghost letters traces of Jack’s handwriting?