Looking Back...A Sense of Whimsy Set Mercer Museum Apart (from the 32nd edition)

by Victoria Memminger

The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa., looks like a castle and that’s the way it’s supposed to look.  Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), its builder and founder of the collection the museum houses, was fourteen when his aunt sent him on a six-month tour of Europe where he fell under the spell of the castles there. The other two Mercer buildings open to the public, Fonthill and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, have a certain castle-like quality, too. If castles and unusual collections of just about everything you can think of are your cup of tea, then the Mercer Museum, built in 1913, should be high on your list of things to see in Bucks County.

The Castle
The Castle. Photo: Milton Rutherford. Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

The lobby does not prepare you for what’s ahead. There’s a glass case holding recent additions to the collection: a folk art landscape from 1890, a rifle from 1855, a molding plane with a card dating it sometime between 1790 and 1820. One item, though, gives you a clue that this may be a pretty quirky collection—that’s the Cheerios box with a back panel celebrating the Central Bucks High School Football Championship of 1997. The gift shop is off the lobby—here you can buy a hand-carved ark complete with animals for $750 or you can spend 25 cents on a candy stick. The most popular items, according to one of the women working there, are a $6.50 folk toy and pieces from the Redware Pottery Collection. The lobby also offers background on the museum and a place to watch a video that tells you what’s in store once you leave the ground floor.

The centerpiece of the museum is the Central Court, up on the next floor. There’s a very apt exhibit just outside the swinging doors that usher you into the court. It’s a vampire killing kit, designed, the card says, for “those who travel to little known countries of Eastern Europe.” The kit contains a pistol with the obligatory silver bullets, an ivory crucifix, powdered garlic, a wooden stake and a special “serum.” At first, museum officials believed that the kit was a genuine, if odd, artifact from the late 19th century. It was later proved to be a 1920s hoax, but once you push open those doors, Dracula’s castle comes immediately to mind. Mel Brooks would love the place. Here’s just some of what you see suspended from the rafters and the side railings when you look up to the ceiling, six levels above you: a whaling boat, a sleigh, a huge bellows, an old fire truck, butter churns, chairs, cradles, carriages, a canoe, tables, and examples of every tool you could imagine (and some you couldn’t.)

The redware collection
The redware collection.
Photo: John Hoenstine.
Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

A view of the ceiling from the
A view of the ceiling from the
Central Court. Photo: Scott E. Mabry.
Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

Literature from the museum will tell you that Mercer’s legacy was a “significant collection of tools and artifacts that illuminate the history of pre-industrial America to c. 1850.” That may well be true, but it is also a significant collection of just about anything that interested Mercer, and that seems to be everything.

Ringing the Central Court, on each of the floors, are what look like old shops, rather than the standard museum cases. You look in the windows of these shops to see the exhibits, which are well lighted and clearly and succinctly described in the cards on the walls. There’s a sense of whimsy about the place that is a pleasant change from the usual dry-as-dust atmosphere in a museum.

On a table near one of the “stores” there is a case with a sign identifying the contents as “Obsolete Artifacts, circa 1991.” The contents include a black dial phone and a 45 RPM record.

Since Mercer was an archaeologist as well as a collector, builder, lawyer, and architect, the artifacts include things that he found interesting even if they are not American; e.g., 19th century brass candlesticks and needle cases from England, a West African two-stringed musical instrument.

Family on tour
Engrossed, you can bet this family didn't finish their tour in an hour. Scott E. Mabry. Courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

Where would the average visitor linger? According to one of the staff, it depends on your interests. Household items? Try the exhibits on combs and buttons and the tools for making tortoise shell ornaments. Kitchen utensils? Chances are you had no idea of the variety of potato mashers, cheese molds, pitchers or pottery or what was used to make these things. If presses are your hobby, there’s a flatbed printing press from 1830 and an enormous fruit press designed to produce wine and preserves.

There are cases full of pretty pale green glass bottles, a number of decanters, and what looks like an early mason jar. There’s a fragment from the Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass., and a statue of Buffalo Bill, minus his left arm and right hand. There’s also a cigar-store Indian.

You can learn about making dairy items, how to preserve meat and fruit, what a country store looked like. A partial list of subjects not mentioned here includes exhibits on shoemaking, architectural hardware, hats, pewter, wallpaper and fabric printing, tin ware, threshing, harvesting, coopering, and tanning and leatherworking. Obviously, the phrase “something for everyone” is not a cliché at the Mercer Museum. The women at the desk will tell you it takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half to do the entire tour. If you can get through the Mercer Museum in that time, you’re not paying attention.

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