The Mercer Museum, located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
, in southeastern Pennsylvania
's Bucks County
, is home to one of the most, if not the
most complete collection of early American artifacts in the world. Being fairly familiar with the museum myself, I can tell you that there are three things that any visitor to the museum cannot help but notice.
The first thing you notice about the Mercer Museum is that it's made out of concrete. Approximately 6.5 thousand tons of reinforced concrete, actually, mostly because that was Henry Mercer's signature (as seen in his Moravian Pottery and Tile Works and his home, Fonthill, constructed the previous decade), but partially as a guard against fire, which Mercer apparently had a considerable fear of, a noted collection of his uncle's having been destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
The second thing you notice about the Mercer Museum is that it's huge, at least as far as huge goes in Doylestown. Seven stories tall, though a modern office building might be able to get nine or ten floors out of the same height, it looks something like a castle as imagined in a contractor's opium dream and sits on the site of a former "circus grounds" (still used for the annual "Folk Fest"), with, in the rear, several floors set into the side of an excellent sledding hill. With a footprint of around 60,000 square feet, as I remember it, it might be interesting to consider that the whole structure was built over the course of three years, 1913 to 1916, by Mercer, eight laborers, and a horse. Unlike Fonthill, Mercer actually planned the museum out before he built it, but luckily this didn't preclude the inclusion of the weird half-floors, strange little passageways, and personal touches like the pawprints of one of Mercer's beloved dogs in the concrete of an upper stairway. (Mercer once collared and licensed the entire stray dog population of Doylestown and then set them free again, as protection against their threatened destruction at the hands of local authorities, but I digress.)
So, after appreciating all this as you park your car, you get out and walk in through the front entrance (a non-concrete but otherwise unobtrusive addition later built by the Bucks County Historical Society, which Mercer co-founded and which now oversees the maintenance and operation of his buildings), pay your admission, enter the museum proper, and come to the third thing you notice. It's full of stuff. The aforementioned size of the building provides for a quite substantial amount of floor space, but that's not the half of it. Artifacts are mounted on walls and rafters, hung from balconies and ceilings wherever there's room, the vaultlike "central court" sporting a whaleboat, Conestoga wagon, and horse-drawn fire engine displayed in this manner. There are upwards of fifty thousand items in the museum's collection, with the majority of them on permanent display.
A Harvard-trained archaeologist and anthropologist, Henry Mercer was a world traveler, "hands-on" intellectual, and dilettante in the best Victorian tradition. After spending the 1880s in Europe and the Near East, sailing the rivers, participating in archeological digs, and publishing works of history, Mercer returned to America, where he started to draw parallels between the long-fallen civilizations he had studied and the American traditions of life and craftsmanship that were beginning to be displaced by growing industrialization and modernization. Foreseeing the inevitable disappearance of this way of life, and influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, he set out to collect artifacts of everyday life, to document and preserve the vanishing culture and practices of his day, and the museum continues to serve in this capacity.
While there are some elements of the collection several thousand years of age, the museum's principal focus is 18th and 19th century America. And while there are aspects of the bizarre and unusual among the displays (the oft-remarked vampire-fighting kit, acquired during my childhood, several decades after Mercer's death, is now suspected as a fake), most focus on the sorts of tools and items that common citizens would encounter in the course of their work or home life - lanterns, chairs, barrels, and hand tools are each represented by several hundred, if not thousand, pieces. Alongside the various individually or thematically displayed artifacts are several historically accurate interior tableaus. The museum building itself contains a schoolroom and general store, plus possibly others that don't come to mind at the moment, and on the grounds are a stable and a log cabin, originally built in 1799 and relocated at the museum's opening. Perhaps validating Mercer's fears, the cabin has burned down and been rebuilt at least twice, but otherwise remains identical to its original configuration, with historical reenactors demonstrating period domestic life on the weekend.
Growing up, I lived five blocks from the museum, and loved to go there and just wander around looking at things as a child. Though I hadn't made the connection, it's likely that this had a lot to do with how I ended up where I am now, in training to be a cultural historian. If you're possessed of similar interests, be they culture, history (besides the collection, the museum also houses a sizeable library on early American life and crafts), or architecture (the building itself is recognized as a "National Historic Landmark" in the 1980s), or just a general sense of curiosity, and you happen to be in Philadelphia or better yet, Bucks County, anytime soon you could certainly do far worse to come over to Doylestown and check it out.
The Mercer Museum
84 South Pine Street
Doylestown, PA 18901