Materials Matter: Copper Surfaces

Browse by Category

By Rachel Lovett, Curator & Assistant Director

If you have been inside the historic kitchen at the Hammond-Harwood House you have seen the museum’s extensive collection of kitchen implements, including the copper items (fig 1) that glisten above the venerable old hearth. These items make an artistic picture; however, there are more benefits to them than meets the eye.

fig 1 – Kitchen Utensils. Photograph courtesy of Paul Dee.

Copper has long been admired for its beauty and has a variety of uses including jewelry, makeup, and building material. In the Renaissance painters like Leonardo DaVinci used copper as canvas, and in 18th century America artists like Boston-based John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) produced miniatures on copper, which he called portraits “in Little”.[i] In this post you will learn about the intersection of decorative arts and health, and why the materials around you matter now more than ever.

If you have ever watched the 1987 romantic comedy “Moonstruck” starring Cher, you may remember that her father, Cosmo Castorini (played by Vincent Gardenia), a highly successful plumber in New York City, advocated using copper pipes (video 1). In his famous line, “There are three kinds of pipe. There’s what you have {aluminum}, which is garbage and you can see where that’s gotten you. There’s bronze, which is pretty good, unless something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. Then, there’s copper, which is the only pipe I use. It costs money. It costs money because it saves money.”

Moonstruck – Copper Pipes Video

There are far more than three kinds of pipes and it is pretty clear Mr. Castorini’s advice is financially motivated and copper pipes do not always prove effective or save money. However,  copper material is worth exploring for other purposes.

Copper has been used since ancient times for health benefits, specifically for its sanitizing properties. While Ancient Egyptian (fig 2), Chinese, and Phoenicians cultures did not have scientific articles to promote their findings, all recognized that this metal had some healing properties that couldn’t be ignored. Some cultures even created special names for this metal, like the Egyptians who used the ankh symbol (fig 3) in hieroglyphics to represent copper–which meant eternal life. Copper was used for the treatment of diseases and for durable water pipes in Ancient Egypt. Examples of the pipes dating to 2750 BC can be found at the Berlin State Museum in Germany. The majority of copper in the ancient world came from Cyprus, which is where the Romans got the name “cuprum” which was later modified.[ii]

fig 2-Ancient Egyptian Copper Smelting Process. Courtesy of the British Museum





fig 3-Copper Ankh


Although copper’s special properties were known to the ancients, it was French physician Victor Burq who first analyzed the medicinal benefits. He observed that metalsmiths who worked with copper (fig 4) faired well during the cholera outbreaks in Paris of 1832, 1849, 1852, and 1865. Likewise, workers in the nearby pottery town of Aubagne were protected due to working with copper-rich clay. His research, presented in 1867, found that close contact with copper essentially sanitized their workplace and hands.[iii]

fig 4- A Copper Factory in Cornwall by Jeane Baptise Henri Durand Brager 1814-1879 French.

So, why does this matter today?

These days there is a lot of concern about surface contamination by Covid19. Copper self-sterilizes continuously. When a microbe, like a virus, lands on a copper surface, the metal releases an electrically charged ion that blasts the microbe, inactivating it or killing it. Depending on the virus this can occur within a few minutes or hours. According to a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine the Covid19 virus dies within 4 hours on copper, compared to surfaces like plastic and steel on which the virus can linger up to a day or more.[iv]

According to Jim Morrison’s April 14, 2020 article in Smithsonian Magazine, Dr. Bill Keevil, a microbiology researcher at the University of Southampton and expert on the antibacterial properties of copper for two decades, found that Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Swine Flu (H1N1) “just blew …apart” when samples were in contact with copper. The same article also focused on the work of Michael G. Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, who researches copper in hospitals, particularly on beds. His recent two-year study showed that copper, while costly in the short term, would save lives and money long term. The study found that plastic bedrails had an over 90 percent risk of bacterial spread compared to just 9 percent with copper.[v]

Copper at the Hammond-Harwood House

In the years leading up to and during the industrial revolution, copper was used in abundance. In older homes like the Hammond-Harwood House you can often still find brass door knobs and key holes (fig 5) which are 67% copper and 33% zinc. During the 20th century this metal fell out of favor and was replaced with cheaper options like plastic and steel. Even after copper tarnishes it continues to have the same sanitizing properties, although the aesthetic appeal has changed. Almost every door knob at the Hammond-Harwood House is brass, which works to self-sanitize viruses 24/7 within a much shorter time frame than other materials.

fig 5-Key Hole at Hammond-Harwood House-scaled

In addition to the door knobs, the Hammond-Harwood House also has a variety of copper and brass items within the collection. Roughly a quarter of the museum’s 200 plus collection of historic kitchen artifacts are brass or copper (fig 6). In the 18th and 19th century cooking with these materials would have provided a safer antibacterial and antiviral environment. While the properties of copper may have not been known to people of the time, copper likely saved many lives, and some of us would not be here if our ancestors had opted for different cooking materials.

fig 6-Copper Items in the Kitchen scaled

The collection of andirons at the museum is almost entirely brass. While none of the fireplaces at the house currently operate, in past times the brass andirons would have worked to provide a more germ- free environment to those cleaning them. The same goes for the 17th century Lantern Clock in the entryway (fig 7). Bedding in early America was a constant struggle with pests, poor mattress quality, and crowding. The two copper bedwarmers at the museum would have provided not only warm comfort but they would help with sanitizing. Likewise, our extensive collection of candleholders (fig 8), mainly made of brass and copper, also aided in eliminating the transmission of bacteria and viruses by object contamination. In the gentleman’s study at the museum are what we believe to be the tools of our architect William Buckland, which are made of brass and can be seen in his portrait done by Charles Willson Peale (fig 9).

fig 7-English Lantern Clock c.1650- scaled
fig 8 – Brass Candle holders- Photo courtesy Jim Finnerty
fig. 9 William Buckland Portrait by Charles Willson Peale 1741-1827

From the back of the Hammond-Harwood House there is a clear view of the Naval Academy Chapel which was dedicated May 8, 1908. It would have been there for sixteen years before the last private resident of the Hammond-Harwood House, Hester Harwood, passed away in 1924. For our visitors and staff the view of the chapel has become synonymous with the beautiful backyard of the Hammond-Harwood House.

Currently the United States Naval Academy is working on the copper dome of the Chapel (fig 10). According the Jim Cheevers, former Senior Curator at the United States Naval Academy Museum, stated:

“The copper on the dome of the Naval Academy Chapel is the original under sheath which was covered with terra cotta military/maritime decorative features in 1908. The terra cotta did not weather well; and, in 1928, the terra cotta was removed leaving the copper under sheath which is now being replaced. A number of years ago repairs were made to the copper with new copper which was treated not to patinate. People began to consider these repair strips as original decorative features of the dome. A British artist hired by the Naval Academy Alumni Association to do a painting of the chapel under construction in 1905 showed these repair strips in his work. They were eventually uncoated but you could still see them.”

The luster of the bright copper color will only last for several weeks before it turns dark brown and it will take about 20 years before it fades into the familiar green patina Annapolis has known for the last nine decades.

fig. 10-United States Naval Academy Chapel scaled

Copper is a unique element, and its benefits have been known for centuries. Next time you admire the kitchen utensils at the Hammond-Harwood House, see the new dome at the Naval Academy Chapel, or purchase copper for your own home we hope that you will think about its contribution to humankind. Simply put–copper is here to stay, working without assistance 24/7 to keep you safe.

Watch the Virtual Talk

[i] Robin Jaffee Frank, Love and Loss American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 60.

[ii] “Copper Facts,” European Copper Institute, accessed April 15 2020,

[iii] Kaveri S. Chaturvedi and Jeffery P. Henderson, “Pathogenic adaptations to host derived antibacterial copper,” Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology 4, no. 3 (2014): 57.TT

[iv] A.W. Artenstein, N. van Doremalen, and F. M. Marty. “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1: NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine, April 13, 2020.

[v] Jim Morrison, “Copper’s Killing Powers Were Known Even to the Ancients,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 14, 2020,

Posted on Apr 29, 2020 in , , by Hammond-Harwood House



Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve, for public education and enjoyment, the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts.
Scroll to Top