In the next installment of our series Why didn’t I go there?, The Why co-host Shai Ben-Yaacov and his 10-year-old son Gil take you on a virtual tour of the time capsule that is the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.
Our guide is the museum’s Cory Amsler who introduces us to the 19th century Penn archaeologist who wasn’t just fascinated by ancient artifacts, but also had a passion for collecting the everyday stuff of his own time, from a wide variety of tools to something called a “calithumpian rattle” and … a vampire killing kit? And with the help of a horse named Lucy, he built a stately concrete castle to put it all in.
On how the Mercer Museum got started
Henry Mercer grew up locally and from a fairly well-to-do family. He ended up in a position with the University of Pennsylvania Museum as an archeologist. And the story goes that one day in 1897, he was going to a local junk dealer and he had this sort of epiphany because he witnessed all of these artifacts that were being discarded, all of these tools and objects of everyday life that were being discarded in favor of new industrial machinery. He recognized these were the things that future archeologists were going to be looking for to to document early American civilization. And he began a collecting binge.
What’s in his collection?
When you walk in there, you’re going to be able to look up about five floors in this giant atrium and see hanging above you large artifacts like fire engines, a conestoga wagon, a whaleboat, other vehicles, and then you’re surrounded on all sides with rooms that house tools and objects from pre-industrial America. It’s kind of a giant filing cabinet, in a sense …
As you make your way up through the museum, what you see in the smaller rooms and alcoves are the tools of the blacksmith, the tools of the tinsmith, the tools of pewterer. I say “tools,” but Mercer defined tools pretty broadly. So in terms of things that are in the museum, certainly a hammer, a saw, we think of those as tools. But furniture, decorated chests, cradles were all in Mercer’s view tools because they met a particular need or want.
And as you continue to work your way up and you get closer to the top, you’ll encounter a gallows, a hearse, stoves and stove plates. As somebody has said, everything that it took to make America is — every thing it took, literally — is on display.
On one of the more unique items
An example is something called a “calithumpian rattle.” This is an object that was made up from lots of pieces of little machines and tools of one kind or another. And what it is, is a giant noisemaker. Mercer, in collecting that object, didn’t just collect the object itself, but he was collecting the stories behind it, so he knew when he acquired this giant noisemaker that made it an incredible racket, that what he was collecting was an object connected to a particular folk practice, which was the chivalry or the calithumpian orchestra. When a couple got married, neighbors might gather together and so-called serenade the newlyweds by making a huge racket outside their outside their bedroom window. And this particular noisemaker was used on a farm not far from Doylestown around 1850. If you didn’t know what the history was, you wouldn’t even know what its function was.
Check out the other episodes in the series! Take a tour inside The Rosenbach, Philly’s famous rare books collection. Then, virtually visit the vast collection of fossils inspired by another disease quarantine at The Wagner Museum.