Menu Close

Invisible Ink

Author Shelley Fraser Mickle
Air Date 5/3/2000

Invisible Ink Transcript

This is the anniversary of the invention of invisible ink. To a child who has learned to read and write, nothing is more exciting than receiving a note that seems to have no words on it at all except these: “place this paper directly in the sun and wait for the words to appear.” Or, “rub this magic pencil over this paper and watch for your message to appear.”

I’m not quite old enough to remember sitting around the radio on Saturday morning listening to children’s programs that more often than not were sponsored by Ovaltine, which at the end of the program invited you to write in and order a magic code ring and invisible ink. But my husband is old enough, and he told me this tale.

On a Saturday morning in November in the year 1948, the boy who would become my husband sent off to the Ovaltine company for invisible ink. He and his friend Billy Starnes spent the next two weeks drawing an elaborate map to a hideout they had made at the end of the street. An invisible ink map to a hideout – it was perfect. And the map went like this: ten steps across the Dark Meadow, fifteen giant steps to the Stepping Stones over Willow Creek, turn left, and… that’s as far as they got, because Billy Starnes’s mother found the note, which Billy had left out in the sun, and she read enough of it to find Billy in the hideout and make him come home and pick beans.

That more or less blew the whole idea of a hideout. Because in childhood there is nothing worse wonderful than seizing a little control, a little privacy from the powers that be, which boils down to knowing things that your parents don’t. I remember how my own son got an invisible ink set and began to write notes with words that he did not know how to spell. One night when I was getting ready to go out and leave him with a babysitter, he handed me an invisible note and the dark crayon with which I could color over the words to make them appear.

“I hate fish ticks,” is what I read while putting on my shoes. In spite of the invisible ink and the invisible spelling, I got the message. Fish sticks is what I always had the babysitter fix for his supper when I went out, and he hated for me to leave.

In fact, now while I think about invisible ink, it seems that that was exactly what was used to draw the portraits of my children each year as they were growing up, as though I were waiting to see the adults they would become.

Posted in Stories