Mercer, Henry Chapman
- Nancy E. Green
American archaeologist, ethnologist and decorative tile designer and manufacturer. Mercer grew up in a privileged Philadelphia family, and at a young age he began his lifelong love of travel, which would take him eventually throughout Europe, the Middle East and Mexico. These travels would later influence his tile designs for the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. From 1875 to 1879 he attended Harvard University, studying with George Herbert Palmer, Henry Cabot Lodge and Charles Eliot Norton, the latter having a defining influence on the development of his aesthetic sense. From 1880 to 1881 he read law, first with his uncle Peter McCall and then with the firm of Fraley and Hollingsworth, both in Philadelphia, though he never received his law degree. Thereafter, he returned to Europe, becoming interested in archaeology and beginning his lifelong passion for collecting the minutiae and mundane objects of everyday life, becoming one of the first scholars to examine history through a material culture lens.
In 1886 he designed a houseboat in which he traveled down the Danube and into Dalmatia; three years later he designed another boat, which he took down the Rhone, Allier and Loire rivers, and eventually up the Nile and along the coasts of Greece and Turkey. He continued to collect widely, including quilts, signboards, Native American relics, ethnic clothing and objects from pre-industrial America. In 1891 he became one of the ten managers of the Free Museum of Science and Art in Philadelphia (established 1887; renamed the University of Pennsylvania Museum) and in 1894 became curator of the Department of American and Prehistoric Archeology there. He did site studies of Pre-Columbian culture on the Yucatán Peninsula and excavations in the Delaware, Ohio and Tennessee river valleys. Elected a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, in 1893, and the American Philosophical Society in 1895, from 1893 to 1897 he served as associate editor of American Naturalist.
A falling out with colleagues ended his archaeological career in 1897 and the following year he began his ceramic experiments on the grounds of his family home, “Aldie.” The following year he met with British ceramicist William De Morgan, who later that year sent him his glaze formula. In 1900 Mercer visited the Paris Exposition and studios of Auguste Delaherche and Emile Muller. In 1901 he was elected Craftsman member of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts (1902, Master Craftsman). At the St Louis Exposition in 1904 he received the Award of Merit. In 1913 he was awarded the Master Craftsman medal by the Society and in 1930 he was posthumously given the first Master Craftsman’s Medal of the Arts and Crafts Guild of Philadelphia.
Mercer received major tile commissions including those for Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Boston home (1901) and for the State Capitol Building in Harrisburg (completed 1906). In 1908 he began building his 44-room home, Fonthill, his “concrete castle for the New World,” and the estate that would house the tile works and the Mercer Museum. All of the buildings, designed by Mercer, are still recognized today for their innovative use of ferroconcrete. The house was completed in 1912 and that same year he moved the pottery there. Mercer designed every tile produced by Moravian Pottery and Tile Works during his lifetime. The museum was created to house his extensive collection of over 50,000 American tools and artifacts, extending back to early Native American implements dating from 6000 to 8000 bc. Within the museum, the Spruance Library remains a valuable resource of books, pamphlets, maps, and other ephemera as well as Mercer’s papers. The three buildings are now a National Historic Landmark and are administered by the Bucks County Historical Society, to whom Mercer left his estate.
Through his tile works, Mercer became a leading force in the Arts and Crafts Movement in America. He was deeply influenced by the ideals of the movement and sought to create works that were of good quality, aesthetically pleasing and affordable. His goal was to duplicate traditional designs and techniques, reviving traditional Pennsylvania German pottery of sgraffito and slipware. His earliest designs were adapted from 18th-century cast iron stone plates, as well as from ancient Saxon abbeys and Aztec and Native motifs, distilling much of his previous archaeological and historical research into this one medium.
Upon Mercer’s death, the Tile Works was willed to Frank King Swain, who had been his right-hand man for over 30 years. Swain continued to run it for another 20 years before finally selling it in the 1950s; it closed its doors in 1964 and was bought by the county five years later. Mercer’s lasting legacy remains the tile pavements, murals, wall mosaics and sculptural reliefs incorporated into the architectural decoration of his numerous commissions.
See also Tile §II 10..
- The Bible in Iron (Doylestown, PA, 1914)
- “The Dating of Old Houses,” Bucks County Historical Society (1924; repr. Doylestown, PA, 1976)
- “The Origin of Log Houses in the United States,” Bucks County Historical Society (1924; repr. Doylestown, PA, 1967)
- Ancient Carpenter Tools (1929/R 1976)
- L. F. Dyke: “Henry Chapman Mercer: An Annotated Chronology,” Mercer Mosaic: The Journal of the Bucks County Historical Society, 6/2–3 (Spring–Summer 1989)
- C. Reed: Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (Philadelphia, 1996)