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This article by Brenda Lange was prepared for the March 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Henry Mercer and His Museum
Walk through the glass doors of the Mercer Museum and
you find yourself walking backward in time.
The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is an oasis of history
in our modern era. To simply say that the Mercer houses one of the
largest collections of early American artifacts is accurate, but does
not begin to illuminate the incredible conglomeration of treasures
you will encounter.
More than 100 years ago, Henry Chapman Mercer, an American who became
known as a "Renaissance Man" and perhaps most famous for his
hand-crafted Moravian tiles, needed tongs for his fireplace, or so
the story goes. After searching through the collection of a friend
— a man who was in the habit of gathering useless junk and obsolete
implements — it occurred to Mercer, then only in his early 30s,
that these objects told a story, a story of Pennsylvania’s history.
"I was seized with a new enthusiasm and hurried over the country,
rummaging the bake-ovens, wagon-houses, cellars, haylofts, smoke-houses,
garrets, and chimney-corners on this side of the Delaware Valley,"
Mercer wrote in his memoir.
His collection grew until Mercer put his "rummagings" on exhibition
in 1897. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm and his collection was
not widely appreciated. Most Americans of that time were more interested
in items associated with heroic warfare and the battlefield than with
the tools of lowly domestic life. Undeterred, Mercer built the structure
on Pine Street now known as the Mercer Museum to house his innovative
collection, convinced that his belief — "that one can chart
humanity’s course by studying its tools" — would one day gain
the recognition it deserved.
At the time of his death in 1930, Mercer’s collection of kitchen utensils,
hardware, iron stove plates, butter churns, baskets, clothing and
so much more numbered 24,800. Today it stands at 40,000.
Anyone who has visited knows that the seven-story Mercer Museum, with
its dozens of lead-pane, mullioned windows, dormers, and towers of
various shapes and sizes, is a completely odd, imposing, watchful,
castle-like structure. Completed in 1916, it was built of a most un-castle-like
material — poured, reinforced concrete.
The building took about three years to construct, cost $38,944.99
and weighs an estimated 6,500 tons. Mercer completed his project with
the help of eight day-laborers and a horse named Lucy.
It was Mercer’s concern over the increasing use of mass production
and the subsequent lack of quality, hand-made items; the growing disposability
of American culture; and his involvement with the Bucks County Historical
Society that prompted him to build a museum to house his collection.
The museum’s central hall opens wide and high, allowing visitors to
look up five stories toward the roof. There, suspended from the rafters
at various levels you’ll find wagons, chairs, farm implements, an
antique fire engine, and a 30-foot whaling boat.
Ringing the central court are small, glass rooms that line each level.
One after another, they display common items from the everyday life
of America in centuries past. Bone hair combs, candle-making materials,
guns, scythes, medical equipment, home furnishings, toys and folk
art, and so much more are preserved here. More than 60 early American
trades are represented, including woodworking, metalworking, agriculture,
shoemaking, and needlework.
Mercer collected as many examples of each item as he could find produced
prior to 1820: the earliest year that U.S. Patent Office records exist.
The museum displays all objects of each genre together, so the visitor
may be able to look at a dozen butter churns or 15 of the same farm
implement, for example, allowing one to compare and contrast.
A well-marked map leads the visitor through this National Historic
Landmark. A small device can be worn around the neck to deliver audio
commentary on many of the displays. Younger visitors can press special
buttons to get the kids’ viewpoint. (Tip for museum-goers: the kids’
version is far more fun to listen to than the adult version.)
"What was your favorite thing today?" I ask my two 11-year-old
companions after an afternoon spent exploring the sprawling museum.
Out of the thousands of items we had seen and the dozens of descriptions
we had listened to, I want to know: Was it the wooden toys — old
Lincoln logs, wheeled, pull toys or the porcelain dolls, the country
store display, or the wagon in which they pretended to race away from
pursuing Indians, or the vintage clothing one had tried on. Perhaps
it was the recreated one-room schoolhouse — maybe they don’t really
have it so bad today in their well-appointed classrooms. At least
they don’t have to write on a slate tablet or fear their teacher will
swat them with that cane. Maybe it was the special display of antique
postcards depicting a very different Doylestown than the one they
"No," they reply, almost in unison. The twins agree that learning
how upper and lower case letters got their names was the best part
of their day. In case you don’t already know, when early printers
laid out their type, each letter was carved on separate small blocks
and kept on a table next to the press. The capital (or upper case)
letters were stored above the small (or lower case) letters. Eureka!
Throughout the day, my kids and I had imagined ourselves shopping
in the old Feasterville General Store, lifted piece by piece and faithfully
recreated in the museum in 1961. The store operated for more than
125 years and was the provider of dry goods, food and tools. The shelves
and counter displays represent the store’s appearance between 1865
We envisioned ourselves traveling west in the stagecoach. Seen up
close, the leather seats, cracked with age look less romantic than
in the movies. But it was fun to imagine riding shotgun high above
the wooden front wheels, or spending days cramped within the tiny,
dark interior with other tired and dusty travelers.
Inspiring imagination is perhaps one of the Mercer’s greatest gifts,
not just to history buffs, but to future generations who haven’t a
clue what a phonograph was or a loom or how uncomfortable that cute
fringed surrey really was.
Mercer was born in Doylestown in 1856 to parents
who were educated, but not financially well-off. His wealthy Aunt
Elizabeth took an interest in Henry and sponsored his five-month-long
European Grand Tour when he was 14. This was the first of Mercer’s
many trips abroad. He studied philosophy and history at Harvard University
and graduated in 1879. He later studied law at the University of Pennsylvania
and became certified, but never practiced law.
Mercer spent much of the 1880s traveling all over the world. On his
return to Pennsylvania in 1891, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania
as museum manager and later curator of American and prehistoric archaeology.
As such, he led digs in eastern Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia,
Texas, Main, Ohio, Indiana, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. At the
end of the decade, he returned to Doylestown, and began to amass his
vast collection, work with the Bucks County Historical Society, and
create his signature Moravian tiles.
As an architect he liked to experiment. Three of his experiments —
the museum, his equally imposing home at Fonthill, and the Moravian
Pottery and Tile Works — stand today as testament to the then-new
construction medium of poured, reinforced concrete. By all accounts
he was a driven man, studying archaeology, anthropology, and history
and becoming one of the top manufacturers of hand-crafted tiles. In
fact, he was seen as a leader in the Arts & Crafts Movement of the
turn of the century. Artisans in residence at the Tile Works still
make the world-famous Mercer tiles today using his original formula.
Mercer authored two books, "Ancient Carpenters Tools" and
"The Bible in Iron."
Although he never married, Mercer lived out his years at Fonthill,
attended by a husband and wife team of Frank Swain, who managed the
Tile Works, and Laura Swain, who was his cook and housekeeper. He
also had the company of his black Labrador retriever, Rollo, whose
footprints can be seen in the concrete at both Fonthill and the Mercer
Museum. When he died, he willed the Tile Works to Frank and the house
to the couple. When Laura died in 1975, the Bucks County Historical
Society took over Fonthill and now runs it as a museum, along with
the Mercer Museum.
The Spruance Library, housed within the Mercer Museum, includes extensive
collections of Bucks County history and genealogy and the history
of early industry, trades, and crafts of the area. Researchers are
For 30 years, the Mercer Museum has hosted a two-day folk festival
of early American crafts. Children’s activities, a military encampment,
demonstrations of dozens of crafts and skills including candle-making,
weaving, wood turning, sheep-shearing, and tinsmithing draw thousands
annually on Mother’s Day weekend. This year’s festival is Saturday
and Sunday, May 10 and 11.
Administered by the Bucks County Historical Society, Mercer Museum
is open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.,
and Tuesday evenings until 9 p.m. Admission $6; $2.50 youth (age 6
to 17); under 6 free. Free admission from 5 to 9 p.m. on the first
Tuesday of each month. On the Web at www.mercermuseum.org.
A calendar of events listing all the activities at the Mercer and
Fonthill museums is offered free by calling the Bucks County Historical
Society at 215-345-0219.
At Mercer Museum
House is open with a costumed interpreter as host. Saturday, April
5, 2 p.m.
for an interactive adventure show featuring "escaped" animal
artifacts from the museum’s collection. Kid-friendly exhibit designed
for ages 3 to 8. On view to January, 2004. Special opening day activities
(11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) include animals of the Philadelphia Zoo on Wheels,
storytellers from the Garden State Storytelling League, the Delaware
Valley Woodcarvers, and the Seeing Eye Puppy Club. Saturday, April
12, 10 a.m.
Theater, stage versions of Aesop’s ever-wise fables. Tickets, $8 adults
and $2.50 youth, include museum admission. Sunday, April 13, 1
by Doylestown Spinners Judy Burmeister and Joan Russell who transform
wool into yarn. Museum admission $6; $2.50 youth. Saturday, April
26, 2 to 4 p.m.
House is open with a costumed interpreter as host. Saturday, May
3, 2 to 4 p.m.
League spin tales about animal friends and lead visits to the "Animals
on the Loose" exhibit. Sunday, May 4, and Sunday, June 1, from
2 to 4 p.m.
festival features all-day entertainment with 100 costumed artisans
demonstrating traditional 18th and 19th-century crafts. Entertainment
by the Give and Take Jugglers. Tucker’s Tales and Puppet Theater,
Ed and Geraldine Berbaum, Charlie Zahm, and fiddler Tad Marks. Food
vendors, kids tent, and Mercer Museum admission. $8 adult; $6 youth;
$20 family. Saturday and Sunday, May 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Audubon Society help visitors discover the sights, sounds, and habitats
of backyard birds. Saturday, May 31, 2 to 4 p.m.
Street and Swamp Road, Doylestown, 215-348-9461. "Behind the Scenes
at Fonthill" takes visitors up Fonthill’s tower and down through
back passages to the crypt. Guided one-hour tours leave every 15 minutes.
Preregister at ext. 10. $12. Saturday, March 29, 7 to 9 p.m.
castle, from the Crypt to the top of the tower. Tours offered first
Saturday of each month. Preregister, $7; $2.50 youth (age 6 to 17).
Saturday, April 5, Saturday, May 3, Saturday, June 7, and Saturday,
July 5, at 10:30 and 11:45 a.m.
Court Street and Route 313, Doylestown, 215-348-9461. Decorated bike
parade, pony rides, watermelon eating contest, patriotic music and
picnic foods are some of the highlights of the patriotic celebration
on the museum grounds. Live music, Phaydeaux’s Fabulous Flying Flea
Circus, plus a women’s suffrage debate. Free old-time games and food
concessions. In case of rain, event is canceled. $3 adults; $1 youth;
under 6 free. Friday, July 4, noon to 5 p.m..
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