Why Every Historical Writer Should Visit the Mercer Museum

The Mercer Museum, Doylestown, PA

The Mercer Museum, Doylestown, PA

Tucked along a quiet back street lined with gorgeous Victorian houses in scenic Doylestown, PA stands an epic mansion made of poured concrete that looks like something out of a gothic romance novel. It’s the Mercer Museum, and if you think the outside is an impressive goad for the imagination, wait until you see the inside!

The Mercer Museum is the ultimate “stuff” collection. The interior is packed full, almost willy-nilly, of gadgets, devices, tools, and sundries from the 18th and 19th century, remnants of everyday life and work that have almost been forgotten. It is a warehouse of the way we used to do things and a way of life that has disappeared.

Henry C. Mercer (1856-1930) was highly conscious of the fact that the Industrial Revolution was sweeping away life as we had known it for centuries. He was a bit of a weird (but fascinating) guy, and brilliant enough to realize that if someone didn’t preserve the way we used to live, it would be lost to antiquity. So in 1897 he began collecting “junk” and saving it for what it was, a record of how we did things before the conveniences of modern life. He began constructing the castle in 1916 to house all of his stuff.

From the ground floor looking up.  And yes, those are chairs and cradles hung from the ceiling!

From the ground floor looking up. And yes, those are chairs and cradles hung from the ceiling!

If you’re a writer of historical fiction or just a fan of the past, you must visit this place! If you’ve ever found yourself asking “I wonder how they made wallpaper in the 19th century” or “what did a 19th century fire truck look like?” or “what kind of stuff did the average 18th or 19th century kitchen have in it before modern appliances?” or “how did people light their houses before electricity?” or anything even remotely along those lines, the Mercer Museum has the material answers.

One of the best parts about the place is that all this stuff is just sort of crammed into one cavernous structure and shoved in corners. It is organized by craft, but you can get right up close to it, look at things from different angles, and really study the goods. Like I said, if you want to write about any kind of implement, tool, craft, carriage, or detail of 19th century life, you need to drop by and visit this place.

I could fill up this post with words about what you will see and why it’s so awesome, but I think the pictures I took of a tiny fraction of the 40,000 objects on display will say it better. So without further ado, here you go!

Need to know what a 19th century coach looks like?

Need to know what a 19th century coach looks like?

 

Or a 19th century fire engine?

Or a 19th century fire engine?

 

How about a kitchen interior?

  How about a kitchen interior?

Kitchen 2

 

Spinning wheels and a loom

Spinning wheels and a loom

 

More, different spinning wheels.

More, different spinning wheels.

 

A selection of horn hairpins and other decorative pieces.

A selection of horn hairpins and other decorative pieces.

 

Every kind of pre-electric lamp you could ever hope to study.

Every kind of pre-electric lamp you could ever hope to study.

 

19th century medical supplies

19th century medical supplies

 

Sewing supplies.

Sewing supplies.

 

Shoemaking supplies

Shoemaking supplies

 

Seriously, they've got everything!  Even a grist mill.

Seriously, they’ve got everything! Even a grist mill.

 

Yes, even a Vampire Killing Kit!  I kid you not!

Yes, even a Vampire Killing Kit! I kid you not!

 

In case you ever wondered how wallpaper was made in the 19th century.

In case you ever wondered how wallpaper was made in the 19th century.

 

The architecture of the museum/castle itself is full of fun surprises, like this tower stairway.

The architecture of the museum/castle itself is full of fun surprises, like this tower stairway.

 

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6 thoughts on “Why Every Historical Writer Should Visit the Mercer Museum

  1. I live in Doylestown, but I haven’t been to the Mercer in a few years, because, well, I dunno! Sort of like New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty, I guess. Anyway, this post is an excellent reminder to visit again this summer.

    • I don’t think I’d visited since I was in elementary school (and the place terrified me back then!). It’s amazing the kind of treasures we have right in our backyard.

  2. Do you feel the envy radiating from the West? The pictures remind me of the U of MT Bozeman museum, where they have a fully function 19th c. pioneer home (complete with original pine floors) set up. And inside? The family dragged me out, barely keeping me from kicking and screaming. Something about closing time *shrug*

    I love places like these. I really, really do.

    • *LOL* Well, T.J., I would love, love, love to visit that fully functional 19th century pioneer home! Someday we’ll have to plan visits to each other’s museum places.

  3. I was thinking it was called Fonthill — but perhaps that’s the name of the building housing the museum. Or is there another spot in Doylestown to visit? Glad you put in such nice photos.

    • Fonthill is Henry Mercer’s home, and boy is that another fascinating building! I’ve been there once and I would love to go back again and really take my time going through. Mercer’s library was amazing. The man was just so interesting, especially considering who he was and what his ideas about things were in the times in which he lived. He was a “confirmed bachelor” *cough cough* with a lot of money and influence in a time and place where you had to be very careful about who you were. Hmm… My character Phineas Bell would have had a lot to talk about with him!

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