If you’ve been keeping up with my Bucks County series, then you’ve probably guessed by this point that this week’s post will be about the third of Henry Chapman Mercer’s buildings in Doylestown. I bet you’re not ready for all of the fascinating trivia I’m about to share with you, though!
This building was certainly the most fun to research. I think of all the buildings, this one shows the most of Mercer’s true character, his intellect, and his passion for history. I have shared with you thus far that Henry Mercer was a tile maker, archaeologist, and designer of his own buildings, but none of these was his true passion. What he loved the most was America! In Mercer’s eyes, the history of founding America mattered only in the stories often untold: of the single men coming together with their simple tools to build this country from the ground up. His passion, then, for history was most definitely not inclusive of the industrial revolution. What was happening to craftsmen who passed down their trades from generation to generation? There was simply not a need for this type of workman any longer. Mercer greatly feared that the industrial revolution, and subsequent documentation of it in history books, was going to eradicate all of the true history of America (according to him), so he began to collect.
The Mercer Museum is a breathtaking display of Mercer’s collections! He first named it “The Tools of the Nation-maker”, which was quite an apt description, as the artifacts tell the story that Mercer was so desperate to hold onto. The everyday life of Americans prior to the industrial revolution is preserved in the 40,000 objects kept in Mercer’s collection, housed in the seven story castle designed by Mercer himself. Permanent exhibits include objects that aided in butter making, printing, glass blowing, harvesting, hat making, engraving, fishing and trapping, brick making, lighting, spinning and weaving. This collection is not only comprised of artifacts from pre-industrial America, but also feature artifacts from Native American groups, West Africa, China, and Southeast Asia (all under the direction and sponsorship of Henry Mercer).
The building has these exhibits lined along the walls of each floor, with the center of the building open so that the magnitude of Mercer’s collection can be seen from every story! My particular favorite of these as a kid was the large boats suspended from the ceiling. Truly, everywhere you look in this museum is rich with history.
The castle that houses this spectacular collection has a story attached to it that I’d never heard until researching for this post! Apparently, when Henry Mercer began to collect artifacts for this museum, his aunt told him that she had a large collection of medieval armor that she would be happy to give to him for his museum. The armor was to be kept safely stored in Boston until Mercer was ready to place it inside his completed museum. Alas, the storage building was made of wood, and if you remember what happened in Boston in 1872, you’ll know that this story does not have a happy ending. The Great Boston fire that destroyed most of the city destroyed also the entire collection of armor. This was the catalyst for Mercer’s tendency to build with concrete! As he was so passionate about preserving the great American history of small craftsmen, Mercer didn’t want future generations to miss out on learning from artifacts because his museum burned down. Thus, the inspiration for all of Mercer’s buildings to be made of concrete was to ensure that fire wouldn’t be a threat! At the completion of the Mercer Museum in 1916, Mercer himself climbed to the top of the building and lit a huge bonfire, just to prove how fireproof it was. Crazy!
I hope you’ve enjoyed the Mercer series! Stay tuned for more art history from Bucks County, PA 🙂 Have a great week!