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A possible use for the tools found in the Somerton Man’s suitcase

“In the late 1990s, when the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago was packing up to prepare for renovations, a batch of brown-paper wrapped parcels was discovered tucked into a small, hidden space above the regular storage bins.

They contained posters, most of them never accessioned by the museum, presumably because at the time they were received they didn’t quite seem to be proper “prints.”Among these were 157 enormous, brightly colored, stenciled works produced during World War II by a collective of Soviet artists working under the umbrella of the news agency TASS*.

Intended to boost morale and report on the war, the posters were designed for temporary window display—TASS almost produced one for each day of the war. After more than a decade of study and restoration, the posters went on view this fall in a mammoth exhibition—the first on its subject in English.

This article (below), by one of the exhibition curators and researchers, looks at how the TASS studio’s eccentric technique led their posters to defy the norms of propaganda.”

Artful Coercion: The Aesthetic Extremes of Stencil in Wartime

*Tass Newsagency was a well-known as an employer of Russian agents – Fedor Nosov for one. His Potts Point apartment overlooked Garden Island and he was known to visit the Pakies Club.

Fedor Nosov, Sydney based Tass Correspondent

“There’s nothing else like Pakie’s. Everybody’s said to come here, and you’re certain to be seen here. Unknowns of all pretensions, but also local lionesses, Dulcie D. and Kylie T. and Bea, and young musicians from the Con, professors from the University, familiar voices from the ABC … and spies.   [RED, page 28]”

1935 • Pakie’s Club


One way I can put together a common use for those tools is to start with a sheet of tinned zinc then use one of the pencils to sketch around the outline of the object being copied or created – the knife point could then be used to hard-impress around said pencilled object before employing the scissors to cut it out of the sheet.

This leaves the brush which may have been used to clean the working surface of graphite. Remembering when Analyst Cowan failed to identify the black powder shaken from the brush he was testing for common poisons, not graphite.

The use of the pencils in this method might explain the absence of an eraser, and the knife may have served a double-purpose as a pencil sharpener.

The Somerton Man’s luggage also contained a razor strop, a tool that may have been used to keep the knife edge keen.

Then, depending on what was being stencilled .. the finished product may have been folded and placed inside one of these mysteriously large envelopes and mailed out to whoever ordered it.

I’m assuming the operation was for illegal purposes, rather than decorative or practical. Even so, the Somerton Man must have been doing something for a living. And there was the precedent for using stencils by the Russians in WW2. A skill that could easily be adapted for commercial use if a man had the right tools.


“Stencilling is a handy and entirely practicable means by which the decorator may apply his own ornamental detail. It is not merely a cheap substitute for hand-painting, or a short cut, but a craft itself.”

“The tools used in stencilling and stencil cutting are few and simple. To take the cutting equipment first, one requires a good sheet of plate glass about two feet square, or larger, a stencil knife, and an oilstone.

As to the knife itself   .. Almost any good blade of a shape readily capable of being sharpened to a point will serve as a stencil knife, and I have seen an excellent tool ground down from an ordinary table knife.”

Arts and Stencilling by WG Sutherland

More here:

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Clive #

    Could those large envelopes have also been used as ‘dead letter drops’?

    September 30, 2020
    • That makes sense, and the stencil is the cut out … we’ve got this almost solved, Clive, but first I’m going to have to kill you.

      September 30, 2020
  2. Clive #

    That could be fatal?

    September 30, 2020

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