Henry Chapman Mercer

 

Mercer archaeologist, historian, architect, and Arts and Crafts-era tile manufacturer, founded the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to house his seminal collectionof tools and products of pre-industrial handcraft. Born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Mercer graduated from Harvard University in 1879. Following travels abroad, hereturned to America and accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in 1891, specializing in American and prehistoric archaeology. In 1897 Mercer began turning his attention to historical artifacts, eventually amassing an exhaustive and encyclopedic collection of early American material culture. That same year, he published a catalog of his inaugural exhibition, “The Tools of the Nation Maker,” describing the use, origins, and associated folklore of the first 761 implements in hiscollection.To house his collection, Mercer imagined and constructed an immense concrete castle, one of three self-designed, visionary structures that included his home,Fonthill, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. At the time of its completion, in 1916, Mercer presented the new museum building to the Bucks County HistoricalSociety, along with contents ranging from pottery and lighting devices to agricultural implements and hand tools. Mercer served as curator and Historical Society president until his death in 1930.As a scholar, Mercer researched and wrote extensively. He published the first significant studies of Pennsylvania German fraktur (1897), stoves and stove plates(1914), building hardware (1923), and wood-working implements (1929). He aggressively documented the tools and processes of traditional crafts through activecorrespondence, observation, and interviews with folk informants, recording his findings in voluminous research notes and papers. An investigation into PennsylvaniaGerman pottery traditions eventually inspired him to produce architectural tiles, employing native earthenware clays. In commissions that included the PennsylvaniaState Capitol and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Mercer’s “Moravian” tile designs reflected his interests in history, folklore, literature, and the natural sciences.Mercer viewed his collection broadly. Combining elements of archaeology, folklife studies, and social history, he sought a more objective, democratic, and inspiringway of presenting the past. Mercer was especially concerned with artifacts associated with human labor, and viewed tools and evolving technologies as essential tounderstanding historical change. Though his purposes transcended aesthetic appreciation alone, Mercer’s collecting and scholarship laid the groundwork for the“discovery” of folk art. His pioneering research into the arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, his appreciation for vernacular forms of material culture, and his efforts todocument craft traditions greatly inspired later generations of folk art collectors and scholars.