Made in America

A 19th-century whaling boat in the Mercer Museum's central atrium. Image courtesy the Mercer Museum.

I didn’t notice the stagecoach.

The light was grey, and I had been focusing on smaller items: flax spinners and apple parers, oil lamps and shoe lasts, pill grinders and tin cutters. In a museum of preindustrial technology it’s the little things that count—the handheld tools that once made the building and baking and sewing and smithing of daily life possible—and at the Mercer Museum they number around 50,000. About two-thirds of these artifacts are on display, entombed in the 71 rooms of a six-story concrete castle built by archaeologist, tile magnate, and untrained architect Henry Chapman Mercer. And while there are other mammoths in the building—a Conestoga wagon, New England whaling boat, and 19th-century fire engine all hang suspended from the walls—it’s the sheer multiplicity of objects, little objects, that visitors will remember.

Born to a prominent Doylestown, Pennsylvania, family in 1856, Mercer was a man of varied interests. He traveled frequently during his youth, and after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in philosophy and history, attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania. He passed the bar in 1881, but instead of entering the legal practice left for Egypt. Mercer’s travels took him through North Africa and Europe, where a collecting habit and interest in archaeology began; after returning to Doylestown in 1882 he talked his way onto several dig sites, hoping to discover evidence of prehistoric settlements in Pennsylvania. As respect for his methods grew, Mercer was appointed curator of American and prehistoric archaeology, a field still in its infancy, at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. But during the three years of his curatorship he became increasingly critical of what he termed “the so-called industrial revolution”—and the technological history it threatened to obscure. Beginning in the late 1890s, as the production of food, clothing, energy, and other basic needs became almost totally mechanized, Mercer started to buy up the tools their manufacture had once required.   

Biography is not an incidental part of the Mercer Museum. As an archaeologist, Mercer catalogued objects whose purpose had been lost to time; in his own time he sought to prevent that loss. Most items in the museum are marked by a classification number scrawled in his hand; an arresting sight to preservationists, perhaps, but representative of Mercer’s attitude toward his collection in general. The objects, culled from junk shops, yard sales, and auction blocks, were viewed as evidence, not art. Nor was redundancy a concern: the more of one item Mercer could gather, the better, which is why entire walls of the museum are often devoted to a single object, cast dozens of times by different hands. Meant to highlight the range in shape and size within a class of tool, the exhaustive displays often render their contents indistinguishable to the casual observer. But variation, the product of a nonstandardized age, was to Mercer a symbol of American ingenuity and grit—traits similarly endangered, he believed, by the rise of industry.

Mercer’s own fortune was founded on similar principles. While collecting early American tools he also began purchasing early Pennsylvanian pottery and ceramic tiles, labor-intensive pieces that had fallen out of fashion by the 19th century. Drawn to the handcrafted tiles and their unique designs, Mercer apprenticed himself to a Moravian artisan to learn the trade. In 1898 he started the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works—now a sister museum to the Mercer—which in time made him a well-known figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement.

In the span of about a decade Mercer’s tile works had outgrown his original kiln, and the tool collection had outgrown his storage capacities. He built a larger tile complex—another poured-concrete number—which was finished in 1912, and in 1914 started construction on what he originally called “The Colonial Museum.” With the help of eight workers and a horse, the bizarre, byzantine castle was finished in 1916. On completion Mercer lit a bonfire on the roof to demonstrate the indestructibility of cement.

Mercer’s design (self-engineered and -executed), classification system (based on his own schema of human needs), and method of display (floor-to-ceiling, and suspended from the ceiling) characterize the idiosyncratic beginnings of public museums in the United States. Early museums were often the projects of wealthy collectors, built entirely to their taste and specifications and reflecting their own beliefs about art, history, or science. These personalities were often scrubbed out—for better or for worse—as museums professionalized, but the Mercer remains largely unchanged since the day of that bonfire. (To further interpret its collections, display more artifacts, and allow for traveling exhibits, the museum opened a new, modern wing in June of this year.) But the objects within the Mercer were not as foreign to early attendees as they are to audiences today, making it a museum of both history and historical memory. In 1916 stagecoaches and cars still shared the road, for example, and oil lamps burned where power lines had not yet reached. It was Mercer’s awareness of these transitions, however, and the extraordinary speed at which they moved that continue to touch visitors almost 100 years later.

Anne Fredrickson is the production editor of Chemical Heritage.