To say that the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is unlike any other historical society museum that I’ve visited is a bit of an understatement. In fact, the Mercer Museum might be unlike any museum I’ve ever visited, period.
This is quite evident even as you’re pulling up to the museum, as it’s housed in what appears to be a grand European castle. And, while it’s obviously not a European castle, the museum’s founder and designer, Henry Chapman Mercer, certainly intended it to resemble that.
The museum is actually one of three poured-in-place concrete structures that Mercer built around Doylestown. While Fonthill Castle was built as his home, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works was built for his workspace, the castle that became the Mercer Museum was built to showcase his collection of machinery. It is located on the outskirts of downtown Doylestown adjacent to the fantastic Michener Art Museum.
The fact that the Mercer Museum is housed in a six-story concrete castle is strange enough, but the collection inside is so eccentric that the castle-like exterior almost seems fitting. In fact, stepping into the main hall, with machinery literally hanging off the walls and from the rafters, you would be excused from thinking that you had somehow walked into a set for a Harry Potter film.
Hogwarts feel aside, the Mercer Museum’s collection is one of the more unique in the state, featuring tools that were powered entirely by humans or animals. Interestingly enough, however, these items weren’t collected years after their use, but were often picked up while they were still contemporary machinery.
According to the museum, Mercer was the first to “recognize that today’s junk becomes tomorrow’s historical artifact.” Thus, he filled his museum with “modern junk.” Today, however, these pieces provide one of the most complete collections into the pieces that turn-of-the-century workers used in their jobs.
Interestingly, the Isett Heritage Museum in Huntingdon, PA, is doing the same thing now with current tools and junk.
Entrance to the museum is through a modern welcome center that contains the ticket counter, gift shop, and a temporary exhibit space. Here, you can pick up a free audio guide. Each stop not only includes several options for adults, but even includes a recording for children that explains the item in a way that they can understand.
This makes the museum a great place for children, though, I found the children’s audio description of the gallows to be a bit strange. For adults though, the museum’s great signage did seem to make the audio guide a bit unnecessary.
Right before entering the historic part of the building, you’ll come across a small display case with a curious looking item in it. When it was first acquired by the museum, it was believed that this was an authentic Vampire Killing Kit. And, while further tests proved that it was a 20th-century fake, it is still an interesting enough piece to have been profiled on the Travel Channel series “Mysteries at the Museum.”
Walking into the castle itself, you can’t help but notice the grand five-story atrium. Items hang from the walls and even the ceiling above you. Of the museum’s collection of 30,000 pieces, over 60% is on display, with many items still in the same layout that Mercer himself placed them over 80 years ago.
Each of the museum’s first five floors contains individual rooms, each dedicated to a different industry. Some of them use tools that don’t look too different than what is used today, but there are also some very strange contraptions, such as those used for diving and whaling.
On the first floor, I especially enjoyed looking at the variety of Cigar Store Indians that were on display. I can’t recall ever seeing such an extensive collection, and it was quite interesting to see the similarities and differences in these advertising icons.
Moving up the floors, I spent a bit of time looking into each of the small rooms. Nearly every industry that used hand-powered tools was represented in the museum. No matter what industries interest you, you’re sure to find at least a handful of rooms that are quite fascinating.
While the museum’s atrium contains most of the items in the Mercer Museum’s collection, I found the sixth and seventh floors to be even more interesting. Here, narrow rooms twist and turn, almost like a dusty attic in an ancient castle.
Unfortunately, because of the small confines of these top two floors, it’s worth noting that there is no elevator access to these floors, and they are not able to accommodate those who can’t use stairs.
Some of the museum’s most fascinating collections are in the upper levels. One such item is the only surviving Franklin Stove made from Benjamin Franklin’s original design. Make sure you don’t miss it among the dozens of stoves and stove plates that are collected around the museum’s attic.
Also interesting in this area is the collection of Moravian tiles embedded in the walls. These tiles were made by Mercer at the nearby Moravian Tile Works, and represent some of America’s most sought-after tiles.
The very back corner of the museum also contains a small section of Native American artifacts that were used primarily by the Lanape (or Delaware) Indian Tribe. Some of these items date back to 10,000 B.C. making them by far the oldest items in the museum.
It’s worth noting, that the historic nature of the castle prevents there from being heating and air conditioning in the building. While they have large fans that run in the summer, it can be very cold during the wintertime. I visited on a cold day in February and had to wear my coat, hat, and gloves during my entire visit. If possible, visit the museum when the weather is more pleasant.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed my visit to the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. While it might not be a typical museum filled with items that individually have historical significance, the museum’s collection as a whole is fascinating for representing the tools that built America.
Note: My visit to the Mercer Museum was hosted by the museum. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday: 10am-5pm
Cost: Adults: $15, Children: $8
Address: 84 South Pine Street
1 thought on “Visiting the Mercer Museum: One of Pennsylvania’s Most Unique and Quirky Collections”
I’m a Docent at the Middletown Area Historical Society of Dauphin County’s museum at 29 East Main Street, Middletown PA. This was a very interesting article on the Mercer Museum and I’d really like to visit it some day (when it gets a bit warmer). I also have it in mind to visit other museums to see how others have preserved their niche of history. Our Museum strives to preserve the history of Middletown. Mercer included “modern junk” in his and I feel that was a brilliant step in preserving the past even though his selections may have still been in use. I like to think that the “thing” I would put on the shelf in storage, though new, will be an antique in 25 years and may not even exist in our culture any longer. Our local high school had a fund-raiser and I purchased a few items that were branded to the school. They currently reside on display in our school display section of the museum. They are items that may never ever be offered or used again and would be lost to the ages.