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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

know.

"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

and 1870.

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

welcome.

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.

Mercer Museum, Pine and Ashland streets, Doylestown, 215-345-0210.

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

Log House Open House. The museum’s reproduction 1800 Log

House is open with a costumed interpreter as host. Saturday, April

5, 2 p.m.

Animals on the Loose! A Mercer Menagerie. Opening day

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.

Aesop’s Fables Puppet Show. From Tucker’s Tales Puppet

Theater, stage versions of Aesop’s ever-wise fables. Tickets, $8 adults

and $2.50 youth, include museum admission. Sunday, April 13, 1

p.m.

Craft Demonstration. Early American craft demonstration

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.

Log House Open House. The museum’s reproduction 1800 Log

House is open with a costumed interpreter as host. Saturday, May

3, 2 to 4 p.m.

Animal Tales. Members of the Garden State Storytellers

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.

Mercer Museum Folk Fest, 215-345-0210. The 30th annual

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.

Birds in Our Backyard. Naturalists from the Bucks County

Audubon Society help visitors discover the sights, sounds, and habitats

of backyard birds. Saturday, May 31, 2 to 4 p.m.

At Fonthill

Nighttime Tower Tour, Fonthill Museum, East Court

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.

Daytime Tower Tours. Explore Fonthill, Henry Mercer’s

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.

Old-Fashioned Fourth of July, Fonthill Museum, East

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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