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A Bit of History:
Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930)

An Eccentric Archeologist

by Mark Clark

The scientist of literature is almost always portrayed as eccentric, with strange obsessions and unfathomable motives. Scientists in real life are usually much more prosaic, with ordinary lives lived in ordinary ways. It is thus with some surprise that we come to the life of Henry Chapman Mercer, a scientist and artist of truly odd ways - a man who mastered the intricacies of making traditional pottery at a time when mass production was fundamentally changing the industry, a man who impoverished himself by collecting thousands of old tools and building a fireproof building to house them for future archeologists, a man who covered his own house with concrete. Mercer is the perfect NPC for a RPG set in the late 19th century - this is his story.

Early Life

Mercer came from a privileged American background. Both of his grandfathers were prominent politicians, his father a graduate of the American naval academy at Annapolis, his mother a Philadelphia socialite. His parents met in Europe, married, and after resigning his commission, his father moved the family first to New York for an unsuccessful farming venture and then to his father-in-law's estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Mercer attended school locally, and at the age of 14 accompanied his mother on a trip to England, France and Germany. His mother, determined that the family should see the castles of Germany, led them through the midst of the Franco-Prussian War. Mercer enjoyed the trip, and loved visiting museums - he described his experiences in long enthusiastic letters home.

After his return from Europe, Mercer attended a military boarding school in New York, and then went on to Harvard from 1875 to 1879, graduating with an A. B. Most of his elective courses were in History. After his return home he helped found the Bucks County Historical Society in January of 1880, and then studied law during the 1880-1881 at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, though he never took the bar exam or practiced law.

A Career in History and Archeology

In November 1881 he left for Europe, and over the next decade he spent much of his time there, much of it on custom-built houseboats. He sailed the Danube, the Rhone, the Loire, and the coasts of Dalmatia, Greece, and Turkey, as well as the Nile. During his travels Mercer continued his historical studies, published several books, and collected artifacts and art works for his private collection.

Mercer returned to the United States in 1891 after he was appointed one of the ten managers of the newly created Museum of Science and Art at the University of Pennsylvania (later renamed The University Museum). Between 1891 and 1897 he traveled widely in the United States and in Yucatan, doing archeological digs and collecting artifacts for the museum. During this time Mercer became increasingly interested in the tools of the recent past as opposed to ancient ones, and eventually resigned his position at the museum to pursue his own interests.

The Switch to Pottery

Beginning about the same time as his resignation, he became interested in the making of pottery, and after experimenting with various techniques, set up his own company, the Moravian Tile Works, to manufacture decorative tile. Deeply influenced by the ideas of the Arts & Crafts movement, Mercer sought to duplicate both traditional designs and traditional manufacturing techniques. His pottery soon began to win prizes at exhibitions, and the company was profitable almost from the start. Between 1900 and 1907 Mercer traveled extensively in Europe and the United States in search of traditional techniques and designs.

In 1907 he inherited a large amount of money from his Aunt Lela, his father's sister, and bought 70 acres of land in Bucks County. He spent the next three years building Fonthill, an eccentric masterpiece. He used concrete, but in an unusual fashion. He and his workmen formed the structure a room at a time, building an interior frame from earth and wood. Decorative tiles, furniture, and other architectural elements were then placed on the surface, and concrete poured around and over them. Once the concrete hardened, the supporting earth was dug out, leaving a solid structure with inset decorations. Mercer eventually encased an adjacent farmhouse (original to the property) with concrete as well.

While the technique sounds strange, I can personally testify that the result is stunning - the interior is full of flowing and organic shapes, with no two rooms shaped alike. I have toured the house (now a museum) several times, and every time I was struck by the creative genius of Mercer - he's one of the folks I'd visit if I had a time machine.

In 1912 Mercer built a new building on his property to house his pottery works. Also made of concrete, it is more conventional in design, resembling a Spanish mission. The following year he began the building of an all-concrete six-story tall museum to house his enormous tool collection - after the museum was finished in 1916 he donated it and its contents to the Bucks County Historical Society. The museum is entirely fireproof and is not wired for electricity - all lighting is by means of natural light from the many windows. Mercer was very much afraid of fire destroying his collection - his uncle had lost an impressive collection of medieval armor in the Great Fire of Boston in 1872.

Mercer became increasingly frail in later years, seldom leaving his estate, but he continued to operate the pottery and correspond with persons all over the world. He died of Bright's disease and myocarditis in 1930.

Mercer the Man

Mercer was unremarkable physically, aside from having poor health, the result of venereal disease (gonorrhea) contracted during a 1881-82 trip through Europe. Since it was incurable at the time, he suffered from the disease throughout his life and was often ill. It is likely that the disease accounts for the fact that he never married.

Mentally, Mercer was alert and unconventional. He was interested in the practical use of tools as well as their importance as archeological artifacts, and he was one of the first collectors of ordinary person's objects as opposed to those of the wealthy elite. He was a joiner and participated actively in intellectual life - he enjoyed writing, publishing, and presenting his ideas as much as his work in making pottery. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Explorers Club, and the Geographical Society of Pennsylvania, among many others.

Mercer's Legacy Mercer left his estate to the Bucks Country Historical Society. The Society runs his house as a museum, and operates the Moravian Tile Works on a demonstration basis. Tiles are produced using Mercer's designs, and are sold to the public. Mercer's museum with his collection is also still operated by the Society, and still displays Mercer's collection just as he arranged it. It is one of the finest collections of 19th century tools in the world, and the concrete building has kept it safe all these years. It is well worth a visit to Doylestown, Pennsylvania to see the museum - there is just nothing like it. The same could be said of Henry Mercer - nothing like him, that's for sure.

Mercer in Space 1889

Henry Chapman Mercer (Archeologist, Dilettante Traveler)

Strength 3: Fisticuffs 2, Throwing 2

Agility 4: Stealth 3, Marksmanship 1 (Rifle)

Endurance 1: Swimming 1

Intellect 5: Observation 4, Engineering 1 (Structural Engineering), Science 3 (Archeology)

Charisma 3: Eloquence 2, Bargaining 1, Linguistics 5 (Latin, German, French, Greek, Koline)

Social Level 5: Riding 4 (Horse), Piloting 2 (Sailing Vessel), Leadership 2

The above reflects an approximation of Mercer's skills in 1889. Mercer's low endurance reflects his venereal disease, which often made him ill. Mercer was definitely bright and well learned in archeology, though not brilliant, accounting for his intellect rating. His family was very well off, though not outrageously wealthy, accounting for his social level.

Since historically Mercer spent much of the 1880s traveling around Europe, the latter half of the decade by houseboat, it is most likely that in the Space 1889 universe Mercer would be encountered sailing either a European river (he spent May-October 1889 in the Loire Valley of France) or a Martian canal. He would not be encountered on Venus or outside the United States or Europe on Earth - he was always interested in civilized rather than primitive cultures. Mercer would be most interested in Martian tools and how they compare with those found on Earth - he would be a valuable source of information, or even a potential patron.

If Mercer is encountered later in the 1890s, increase his Science and Engineering skill - after 1897 his increasing interest in pottery meant that he focused on artistic rather than scientific matters. I should note that Mercer was strongly pro-German in orientation. His sister Elizabeth married a Bavarian Baron, and these family ties, as well his own travels in Germany as a young man, made him very kindly disposed towards the German nation. His views made him unpopular during World War I, when he sharply criticized American foreign policy.

Mercer also had a strong love of dogs, preferring those with some Chesapeake Bay Retriever blood. He bred them, and often took them along on his travels. In 1889 he took a dog named Sailor with him - it died during his voyage down the Loire Valley. He loved all dogs, by the way, not just his own. At one time Doylestown officials decided that there were too many loose dogs on the streets, and rounded them up. They then announced that any dog unclaimed and unlicensed after five days would be destroyed. Mercer quickly bought fifty collars and fifty licenses and attached them to the impounded dogs, allowing them to go free in the street again. "Now they're legal," he explained!


Linda F. Dyke, "Henry Chapman Mercer: An Annotated Chronology", Mercer Mosaic: The Journal of the Bucks County Historical Society, Volume 6, Number 2-3 (Spring/Summer 1989)
A good short introduction but not easy to find.

Cleota Reed, Henry Chapman Marcer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996
The definitive biography of Mercer with lots of nice pictures of him, his house, and the tiles and pottery he designed.

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:54:13 EDT

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