The Conquerer Mildew

Poe got it wrong.

It’s not the worm that conquers all.

It’s mildew.

I discovered last week that I no longer have to worry about where to store my great-aunt’s prayerbook, her mesh evening bags c. 1910, my mother’s First Communion prayerbook, her college and nursing school diplomas and class photos, my First Communion prayerbook, or the dozen or so photo albums documenting my first 18 years.

Mildew got ’em all, along with two dozen 1920s novels for girls (The Motor Car Girls, the Marjorie and Mary Jane series, early Bobbsey Twins), magazines and books documenting the Kennedy assassination, and innumerable holy cards from great-relatives funerals.

I knew it would be difficult to sort through the memories my mother had stored in two very old hump-topped trunks that came over with somebody’s ancestors on the boat from Ireland. The trunks were stored in attics during most of their first century, but in the mid-1960s my parents moved to a home that didn’t have an attic. It did have a semi-finished basement, though.

Things were fine for a while, but then some water got in, probably in the 1970s, and then things began to deteriorate (in so many ways). And now it is time to clean out the house.

I’d already decided that anything chipped, cracked, scratched or otherwise damaged was not going to make the trip to Wisconsin. But I hadn’t expected to play Grim Reaper to so much that had been kept for so long.

It was an intense afternoon.

I was able to save a handful of very old photos. When I came home, I transferred them to a new box and put them in our attic, hoping a couple of Midwestern summers will bake the smell away. By the time I realized that the photo albums also reeked, the trunk of the car was full. I wasn’t keen on driving 400+ miles with them contaminating the passenger compartment, so I arranged to have them shipped.

When they arrive (and I hope it takes a while), I’ll sit outside some mild winter day and remove them from the albums. Many of the photos are falling out, anyway; those old black photo corners had an adhesive life of maybe ten years. I’ll note the date and ID people left to right on the backs of the photos and put them in the attic with the previous generations until summer works its magic.

You will not be surprised to learn that I am now casting a cold eye on many things I have accumulated over the years.

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

This entry was posted in History Stuff, The Examined Life. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Conquerer Mildew

  1. Mirka Breen says:

    L-O-V-E this post. Poor Poe must have known mildew also, considering where he lived.
    Some years ago I found that one particular closet had a mildew issue, (or shall I say attraction?) and managed to save the most important books by using a service museum conservators recommended. It was prohibitively expensive for all but the truly important volumes. They came back de-mildewed, but smelling funny. Those chemicals, it turned out, were not good for us.
    My sympathies.


  2. Oh, Anne, how heartbreaking. Intense days indeed. The last time we checked my grandmother’s trunk its contents were fine. But it’s been awhile. I’m afraid to look.

    When my other grandmother died (years ago) we took my grandfather’s portrait that she had stored in her basement (don’t ask). I removed the back. It and a photo of a baby, circa the 1900s, crumbled. I’m thinking the photographer used the baby’s spare photo as backing. It was a good thing. It saved my grandfather’s portrait. I hung it upstairs, near a radiator. It eventually dried out.


  3. MaryWitzl says:

    Being from Southern California, I barely knew what mildew was when I left home. After a few summers in Japan, I learned not to put anything in a drawer and expect it to go through a summer unscathed unless I was eternally vigilant and treated it to frequent airings.

    When I went back to California as an adult, I was amazed to find some boxes full of old clothes in our garage that had been unopened for decades. When I opened them, fearing the worst, I was amazed to find that everything was fine. One summer in Japan and the whole lot would have been ruined. Japan’s a great country for culling belongings.


    • Anne Bingham says:

      I know what you mean, Mary. Our basement is not wonderful but at least we know enough not to carpet it and to keep a serious dehumidifier going in the summer. I wonder, though, how things are going where you live now? I gather there’s probably not much need for air conditioning of any form, and from what you’ve said elsewhere, central heating is an iffy proposition. How does that affect keepsake storage?


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