The ups and (mostly) downs of dealing with mold on paper via the Cope family papers

The Cope family papers (Collection 1486) is a remarkable and almost complete collection of record documenting the family’s shipping business and related interests.  The largest portion of the papers is dedicated to the ships and the freight and passengers they carried.  Cope’s Line of Packets, which was started by Thomas Pim Cope and then handed down to subsequent generations, made over 500 voyages between the United States and England (and a few other destinations) from the 1820s to the 1870s.  There are records in the collection from almost every one of those voyages.  Interested in knowing what a Philadelphian might have typically ordered from England in the 1840s? Wonder what kinds of ships made such voyages?  Curious to know who was doing the importing and who worked on such ships?   The answers are probably in this collection.

I’m currently completing the finding aid for this collection and labeling its boxes.  It’s an interesting but tedious process that’s made slightly more difficult by the presence of old (but cleaned) mold throughout the collection.   Frankly, we are incredibly lucky to have the sheer number of papers in this collection because some of it once looked this:

The Cope papers as they were once housed (photograph, 2002)

Bundles of moldy papers (photograph, 2002)

Once the envelopes were opened, this is how some of the papers looked. Yuck. (photograph, 2002)

It's all so unpleasant. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for the brave processors at the time! (photograph, 2002)

Before my time here, a number of HSP staffers spent hours upon hours cleaning this collection for, as I understand it, active mold, which can be dangerous, especially for people with severe allergies.  I only know what portions of the collection once looked like from these pictures.  Thankfully, the collection looks much better today, at least from the outside and mostly on the inside:

What the Cope family papers look like today, from the outside (photograph, 2011)

More new Cope boxes that will soon get new labels (photograph, 2011)

The Cope papers in new folders (photograph, 2011)

Mold, in any capacity, is no fun.   All paper is susceptible to mold, especially if it’s gotten wet or is stored for long periods of time in damp or humid environments.  I’m far from an expert when it comes to the science of mold, and I’ve never seen truly active mold in a collection, but based on what I have come across in some of our collection, states of mold on paper varies and it leaves obvious visual signs:

  • Purple, pink, or green stains (not to be confused with ink bleed)

A bill of lading replete with old mold that left a large purple stain (photograph, 2011)

  • Large, extended, brown stains with distinct spots, sometimes with a “fuzzy” coating

A freight list showing severe mold damage (photograph, 2011)

  • Rag paper that looks and feels tissue-like and crumbles to the touch

One of these was probably a receipt; the other a letter(?); now they are little more than tissue paper (photograph, 2011)

According to old documentation, a fairly small percentage of the collection was badly affected.  Some of this material was so badly damaged however that it had to be photocopied (when possible) and discarded.  The collection contains many instances of severe losses due to mold and we’ve keep as much stable paper as possible despite the losses.

Severe losses due to mold on a seaman's contract (photograp, 2011)

We take mold very seriously around here.  When we’re lucky enough to have a mold technician, anything we suspect might be moldy will get cleaned.  We place notes on mold in our finding aids and warning stickers on boxes and folders of cleaned papers to inform staff and patrons.

Staff members have respirators, dust masks, gloves, and smocks at their disposal for dealing with particularly bad outbreaks (and we make these available to researchers as well).  If a moldy collection can’t get cleaned right away, we still note the presence of it in the collection’s record and on the boxes.  Since working here, I’ve developed an unfortunate/lucky “nose” for mold and can tell fairly quickly if it’s in a collection, even if it’s not apparent as first.  I’ve only gotten sick once from dealing with mold, but once is quite enough.

In the end, no amount of mold, or dirt, or dust, should deter anyone from using this fantastic collection of papers from the Cope family.  We’ve kept records of anything that’s been photocopied or discarded (in the most severe cases) because of condition –again a very small amount of material compared to what’s available.


2 thoughts on “The ups and (mostly) downs of dealing with mold on paper via the Cope family papers

  1. Fantastic work!! Is there any chance of looking amongst the papers to see if a Charles Watts of Philadelphia sailed to England in 1856 or some time earlier? He lived on Corn Street near the wharves in Philadelphia and was a free man of colour. He was born on August 14, 1833.

    Many, many thanks,
    Lyndal Ward from Brisbane

    • Dear Lyndal,

      It’s possible that Mr. Watts is mentioned in the papers; however, finding him may not be an easy task in such a large collection. Requests like this are handled by our research department through our Research by Mail service. Click the link ( to find out more from our website.

      Thanks for reading!

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