A Tour Through America’s Handmade Past

Maker News


After visiting the first Lehigh Valley Mini Maker Faire in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this past weekend I decided to take advantage of my stay in eastern Pennsylvania and visit the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. About 25 miles north of Philadelphia, Doylestown’s history is ingrained in the breadth of America’s national history. Tiles and sculptural relief works from the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (MPTW) once adorned the facades of public schools and other civic buildings where I grew up in St. Louis.

After completion of the MPTW its architect, Dr. Henry Chapman Mercer, went on to design and build the namesake Mercer Museum (above), to house his personal collection of American artifacts. From the Mercer Museum website,

By 1897 handmade objects were being discarded in favor of new machine-made goods. Historian and archaeologist Henry Mercer (1856-1930) recognized the need to collect and preserve the outmoded material of daily life in America before it was swept away by the Industrial Revolution. Mercer gathered almost 30,000 items ranging from hand tools to horse-drawn vehicles and assembled this encyclopedic collection in a system of his own devising.

That “system of his own devising” was a little haphazard and rickety, or at least gave the appearance of being so. Machines of various designs, dinghies, chairs, and even fire trucks are suspended in the atrium, some many stories above the ground floor. Several dozen rooms populate the six floors of this concrete-reinforced building, displaying roughly 30,000 objects, tools, and artifacts, themselves simply mounted or suspended with wire, twine, or rope. The museum has made a conscious decision to leave the original installation of the collection as intact as possible, only upgrading the lighting and addressing modern safety requirements. Otherwise, every possible nook and cranny is filled with the collection like so:



I only had a couple hours to blaze through the museum, so the following slideshow is by no means comprehensive. In fact, there were several times I re-toured a floor I thought I had walked entirely, only to find another hallway or hidden gallery full of wares that I had missed. So if you’re in or around Doylestown and have an afternoon or entire day, are an avid museumgoer like myself, and want to get a glimpse of America’s now-vanished maker-made past, I highly encourage a visit to the Mercer Museum.

I apologize if any of the images appear dark. The museum is not brightly lit and all of the galleries are adjacent to exterior windows with sunlight flooding in, so I was fighting against back-lighting. Additionally they are protected by plexi, meaning a camera flash would be pretty useless. But hey all the more reason to visit the museum and see for yourself!

H/T Tom for info on some of the images in the slideshow.

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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