The Tower Of Tools
Henry Chapman Mercer, a frustrated archeologist, had what you could call a vision of the history of technology one day early in 1897. At the moment it happened, he was searching for fireplace tongs in a junkyard in his native Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As he later wrote: “When I came to hunt out the tongs from the midst of a disordered pile of old wagons, gumtree salt-boxes, flax-brakes, straw beehives, tin dinner-horns, rope-machines and spinning-wheels, things that I had heard of but never collectively saw before, the idea occurred to me that the history of Pennsylvania was here profusely illustrated and from a new point of view. I was seized with a new enthusiasm and hurried over the county, rummaging the bake-ovens, wagon-houses, cellars, haylofts, smoke-houses, garrets, and chimney-corners, on this side of the Delaware Valley.”
Mercer perceived that all manner of technology that had hardly changed for millennia was fast disappearing and that “in this respect there is a greater difference between our lives and the life of George Washington than between his life and the life of William the Conqueror.” With that in mind, he made it his mission to do nothing less than present history “from a new point of view”—one given by the vanishing tools of the past, those very things that were filling junkyards and being chopped up for firewood. He would still think as an archeologist, but with his focus swung around from the most distant human past to the most recent: “this therefore is archeology turned upside down, reversed, revolutionized.”
Over the next two decades he built a collection of more than ten thousand implements, from needles to whole mills, wagons, and cider presses, devised a method for classifying them all, and then built a massive museum around them, in Bucks County. The museum, a six-story all-concrete castle around a central court, is equal parts European cathedral, overgrown attic, and fun house. It is a true monument to the universe of obsolete implements it contains, and it is the enduring and ebullient testament to Mercer’s then-revolutionary notion of preserving the material past of everyday life. In fact, stepping into its nave, which is peopled by cigar-store Indians and overhung by suspended workboats, kitchen machinery, the prow of a Conestoga wagon, and a far-off ceiling lined with chairs and baskets, you can’t help feeling you are stepping into the vaults of Mercer’s mind.
Harry Mercer was born in Doylestown in 1856 to one of the town’s most prominent families. His mother’s father was a judge and former congressman; his own father was a naval officer descended from a long line of Virginia and Maryland planters. His aunt Lela was the widow of a rich and distinguished member of the Lawrence family of Boston, and she liked Harry enough to start him out in life as a man of means. She gave him a summer in Europe when he was fourteen; he entered Harvard when he was nineteen, after a year of private tutoring. He then, as everyone expected, studied to become a lawyer. But instead of beginning a practice, in 1881, he took another tour of Europe. He came home with a diagnosis of venereal disease that bo^h delayed his start as a lawyer—permanently, it turned out—and apparently helped confirm his lifelong bachelorhood.
By 1882 Mercer was making a name for himself as a self-taught archeologist. In 1885 he published a book titled The Lenape Stone , in which he presented the inconclusive results of his impressively thorough researches into an incised stone found near Doylestown that was supposed to give proof of human habitation as far back as the Pleistocene epoch. Over the next few years he took part in digs from Delaware to the Yucatán. He also became a collector of anything from eastern Pennsylvania’s past that caught his eye, including quilts, signboards, pottery, and Indian relics, but he as yet made no connection between that enthusiasm and archeology.
In 1894, after several more journeys and digs abroad, he became an archeological curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum. He supervised major digs in America and abroad, became an associate editor of American Naturalist , and was elected to the American Philosophical Society. He relentlessly searched tor evidence of ancient culture in the eastern United States. He was eminent and successful. And within three years, by 1897, he cast it all away. He never did traditional archeology again.
Several things contributed to his disenchantment. Mainly, he was failing, as the great majority of archeologists or scientists of any sort do, to make a truly major mark in his field. And he was a terrible organization man, unable to submit to the wishes of others or to accept ordinary criticism about his professional work. So he set out on two new independent careers.
One of them was ceramics. He became a professional potter, making a business out of an increasingly serious hobby—creating decorative tiles. In this he found success and happiness, and he is remembered as a leading figure in the American arts-and-crafts movement. His Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, in Doylestown, is now, like the Mercer Museum, maintained as an institution of the Bucks County Historical Society.
His other new career was tool collecting. He pursued this new passion so zealously after that day when the idea hit him that within only months—in July 1897—he had his first show. He wanted to excite the Bucks County Historical Society, which he had helped found, about his diverse and homely acquisitions, so he made a display at the society’s annual meeting, which was held outdoors in a park. “We had a great number of objects hung up upon the trees in the woods,” he later wrote, “and when we were suddenly attacked by a thunder storm, we ran away.” This unpropitious beginning did nothing to dissuade most members of the society from their view that junk was junk. The Bucks County Historical Society was, like any historical society of its time, interested in objects connected to great men or events, not in ordinary, obsolete tools. Mercer persevered, following with an indoor show in the courthouse in October.
Relations with the society stayed very touchy for the next few years. Mercer insisted on making the society the recipient of his collection and took over its meeting room for storage. Then, when the society refused to bend further to his will, he quit it. Meanwhile, he nurtured his pottery business, traveled repeatedly to Europe, and, between 1908 and 1912, built himself a dream house in Doylestown.
The house, called Fonthill, was made almost entirely of reinforced concrete, which Mercer liked both because it was fireproof and because it gave him almost complete freedom to design sculpturally. Despite his lack of architectural training, he designed the house himself, advancing from rough sketches to clay and then plaster models, working outward from individual rooms to a whole agglomerated shape and only then to exterior appearance, and endlessly revising his plans as the actual building proceeded. The architectural critic Robert Campbell has described the result as “a sprawling, Walter Scott gloom-and-secret-passages fantasy of towers and staircases, oddshaped rooms, mysterious and baffling, filled with unexpected vistas and shafts of sunlight.” (It, too, is owned and maintained today by the Bucks County Historical Society.)
Almost as soon as he finished his house, he went on to build his masterpiece, the museum. He had rejoined the historical society when it became clear that he could control it, and he made himself president, curator, and chief benefactor. The society became his vehicle for preserving, as no one else was doing anywhere, the actual stuff of the making of America.
Mercer had proclaimed in a speech to the society in 1907: “Equipped as his ancestors had been for centuries in the old world with these very tools and utensils, the pioneer came to America. Armed with these things he cut down the forest, contended with the forces of nature, and worked out his life and destiny until about the year 1820, when a wave of inventive mechanical genius having seized him, he cast them all aside, and equipped himself with the products of a new machinery. … These spinning wheels, these flax brakes, illustrating the whole equipment of mankind with clothing, these shovel plows, clover-strippers, ropemachines, leaf-forks, long bitted axes, flintlock guns, cranes and bake-irons will never be made again. Because they came to an end so suddenly and so near our own lives, they are still within reach, but they are vanishing fast, and we must gather them together now or never.”
Even more than at Fonthill, he designed the museum from the inside out; it was, he said, “made for the collection, while the collection was not made for it.” At the center he put a high, open court arranged to accommodate the largest items he wanted to display. He ringed the court with five tiers of walkways; between them and the outer walls he built small rooms, more than sixty in all, each devoted to one specific craft or mechanical art and jammed with artifacts. The rooms are kept closed; their contents are viewed dioramalike through glass windows. This protects the displays not only from human hands but also from the threat of fire. Flights of stairs are placed at alternating ends of the building, forcing the visitor to see half the displays just to get from top to bottom. More rooms are in alcoves at either end, and atop the building stand two towers with still more rooms.
Everything is concrete—floors, ceilings, walls, even the five-inch-thick roof and the window mullions. Only the doors, windowpanes, and iron railings are of anything else. The concrete is all unspaded, giving it porousness but also creating an amazingly warm, woodlike appearance. Mercer built hooks into the concrete as he poured it, already knowing where he would hang many of his objects. He varied the floor levels and balcony sizes according to what had to fit where, and the sculptural appearance of the resulting whole has often drawn comparison to the work of the great Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. Mercer built whole rooms around artifacts like a Dutch oven and a giant cider press, which dominates a room full of animal husbandry tools. The massive wooden screw of the press pokes up through the ceiling and under a loom surrounded by spinning wheels on the floor above.
On the ground floor he put displays having to do with the preparation of food as well as with bathing, printing and paper making, milling, mining, pewter, glassware, and other subjects. The first gallery above contains rooms connected with clothing, threshing and reaping, cooperage, animal husbandry, shoemaking, engraving, marine arts, saddlery, and more. This eclectic room-by-room organization continues up to the top level, two towers, and “roof gallery.”
In 1921 Mercer published a system for classifying all the tools. He listed five groupings as “primary”: tools to make tools, and tools for food, for clothing, for shelter, and for transport. “Secondary” tools were those for language, religion, pure and applied science, commerce, government, art, and amusement. He never made the system more detailed or thorough than that, however, and the museum simply numbered each item in the order of acquisition, not by systematic arrangement. As long as he lived, he never got to labeling the collection except in the barest way; a one-word plaster-of-Paris sign over a room might say “Tinware,” with no further identification within. He thought of the collection as above all a historical resource. That was why forty powder horns were preferable to two or twenty; future archeologists and historians could study them and provide the background information that wasn’t on the walls. At one point he thought of stationing an attendant in the central court with books describing the different groups of implements; he would be able to explain to visitors, by shouting, what the specific tableaux they were looking at showed. Only in 1977 was a method for extensive labeling developed, and in the past ten years most of the displays have received extremely helpful caption cards. (The Bucks County Historical Society, evidently one of the nation’s more prosperous local history groups, has also added a handsome new entrance wing with displays about Mercer and the origins of the museum and has maintained the whole museum beautifully.)
Still, the wordless effect of Mercer’s grand assemblage has not been diminished. The environment is curiously churchlike, with its high, narrow space above a hard floor, its interior walls supported by level upon level of roughly shaped arches, its dim natural lighting provided by hundreds of small windows (Mercer did not care for electric light), its cool stillness and predominating echoey emptiness (perhaps twenty visitors see the museum on an average weekday), and even a slight waxy church smell—apparently from an abandoned policy of dipping all the wooden objects in a linseed-oil preservative. The myriad rooms around the outside seem like small chapels; the objects on display are almost icons: ancient, apparently full of meaning, but largely unsullied by written description.
And like a great church, the museum has its most powerful effect not in the bits and pieces it contains but as a whole. It puts any visitor in a playful mood, with its nooks and crannies and alcoves and its towers atop twisting stairs, and one’s delight is compounded by the sheer exuberance of the wealth of artifacts all around. Every eight or ten feet you pass by another room with a different collection of things, and there seem to be thousands of them. They add up to a fearsome whole, giving an almost overwhelming sense of the hard work of our forebears’ lives. People hewed all these thousands of tools themselves and used them in every difficult aspect of daily life. The lesson is driven home especially sharply by such an intense concentration of these former instruments of life.
Further—as in a chapel in a church—you find yourself communing with the objects in Mercer’s museum. The experience could not be more different from, say, watching a flax spinner or candle dipper at Sturbridge or Williamsburg; here you gaze at the machinery alone and on your own terms, taking in as much as you want to, using your own imagination to figure it all out. Nobody is either helping you or lecturing you. Even with the caption cards the museum remains a highly personal, idiosyncratic, largely unexplained, though theatrical, show.
George Basalla, a professor of the history of technology at the University of Delaware, often takes his classes to the museum. “I don’t know anywhere else where so many things are brought together so conveniently,” he says. “Who else would have bothered to assemble all these gadgets, so that, for instance, you can look at everything needed to make combs out of horn? Material culture, the historical study of objects like these, is a new study. People write about it without actually experiencing the objects as you can at the Mercer Museum; that opportunity is what gives it such great importance. Back then there were no awards for building a collection of that, there wasn’t even any interest in the stuff. And yet Mercer did it and put it all in context too—here’s the room with everything about file making. That’s very important. It’s an attic, but it’s all there.”
By Mercer’s death, in 1930, the collection numbered more than twentythree thousand items (it is still growing and has forty thousand today). He had been indexing it and had published studies on parts of it—pamphlets on food, clothing, and tools, for instance—and had remained active as a potter, an unsuccessful writer of suspense stories, a Wagnerian, an antivivisectionist, and a general late-nineteenth-century Renaissance man.
In the end Mercer’s museum is not like any other. In a time when reconstructions of entire colonial villages dot the map, no other place so embodies one person’s great awakening to what was, ninety years ago, a forgotten part of the nation’s past—the past of the tools that had built the nation. Mercer’s excitement lives on.