Highlights of Doylestown, Pennsylvania

by Bonnie and Bill Neely

Doylestown, PA, was not our destination, but when Highway 202 in Bucks County led us through the little town, we were taken with its charm and beauty in the early spring, with lush green lawns, many flowering dogwoods, shrubs, wildflowers, and cherry trees, and new green everywhere. The houses have beautiful and varied architecture of yester years and seemed to have their owners’ attention for detail and upkeep. Without warning we sere suddenly passing an enormous and strange-looking sprawling concrete building with no windows or doors that we could see. It reminded us of ancient castles or dungeons, and we decided we must explore this place.

Soon we learned of Henry Chapman Mercer (June 24, 1856 – March 9, 1930), a wealthy philanthropist in the early 20th Century, who had lived in Doylestown, and the weird building housed his hand-made tile works factory.  Of course, we HAD to spend the day in this lovely and fascinating little town.

First we were directed to tour the Mercer Museum, built in 1913 for his collections. Mercer had traveled the world, read extensively, and had been an archeologist for years.  In about 1897 he realized that the world was changing as the Industrial Revolution was beginning. Since he had spent years digging up relicts of ancient times in many different countries and cultures, he decided to build a museum which would house an example of the tools used to make the articles necessary for everyday life in the 19th Century, so that future archeologists would have no need to dig to find the items nor to speculate about their use.

He was a very organized and methodical person, so he planned his museum to house items arranged by their use. The first floor contained the essential utensils for cooking, farming, building, spinning, weaving, treating the ill, dentistry…necessary tools for living. The second floor had separate collections of tools used to make unnecessary items like hats, shoes, decorative clothing, and ornamental fabric items. Other floors were designated for art, music, transportation, and even things used in crime and punishment, including a hanging gallows and a spiked holding chamber for criminals.

He made plaster models of each of the floors and how they would be divided to display the 60,000 items he had collected in orderly manner with explanations of how these hand tools were used. When he was satisfied that he had included everything necessary, he fit the rooms and floors together to create a seven-floor cement castle tower, as the architectural guide for the museum builders. The central room as we entered displayed large items of life including a whale boat and a Conestoga wagon. Cement had been in use for awhile, but he used the new technique of incorporating re-bar into the cement construction, demonstrating the great strength it added to a building.

Of course, the Museum was lighted at first only by candles, but in the mid-20th Century electricity and an elevator were added to make the explorations more accessible to the modern visitors. This museum was so fascinating to us because it incorporated items that our grandparents had used daily. We had seen many of those things but had no idea how to use them. Now that another century has passed in which electrically mechanized tools gave comfort and ease to everyday life, and assembly lines became the manufacturing norm, hand crafting began to be unnecessary.  And about 100 years later the electronic and dot/com age became prevalent and had begun to usher in robots rapidly. It was amazing to see how much easier life in these times is by comparison. Mercer Museum is really worth a day anytime you can get to quaintly beautiful Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

IF YOU GO: https://www.doylestownborough.net/pages/our-town, https://www.visitbuckscounty.com/things-to-do/planning-ideas/the-mercer-mile/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Chapman_Mercer.