Historical Markers
Henry Chapman Mercer Historical Marker
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Henry Chapman Mercer

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
PA 313 in front of Tile Works, Doylestown

Dedication Date:
October 17, 1998

Behind the Marker

A black and white image of a dapper looking Mercer in a suit with his arm around a black dog.
Henry Chapman Mercer
Visitors to the magnificent State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, first opened in 1906, are likely to be awed by architecture that is a cross between the Paris Opera and St. Peter's in Rome, the murals of markerViolet Oakley and Edwin Austin Abbey, and the "lunettes" of Willian Van Inghen representing the Commonwealth's diverse religions and virtues such as industry and temperance (with respect to consuming alcoholic beverages.) But unless they look to the floor beneath their feet, they will tread unwittingly upon some of the Capitol's greatest masterpieces: nearly 400 tiles designed by Henry Chapman Mercer and manufactured at his Moravian Pottery Works in Doylestown, Bucks County.

Here are images not of statesmen and generals, but of plants and animals, Native Americans, soldiers, women, workers, and immigrants. More than thirty of the tiles had been covered over as the interior of the Capitol has been altered over the past century. The position and fate of the tiles, like that of much of Pennsylvania's environment and many of its people, is to have been trampled upon by those usually regarded as the movers and shapers of history. Only in 1997, fifteen years after it began refurbishing the Capitol, did the preservation committee turn to the protection of Mercer's tiles.

Like many historians of the early twenty-first century, Mercer was presenting history "from the bottom up." When Mercer depicted the Battle of Gettysburg a single Northern soldier triumphs over his Southern rival. When Washington crosses the Delaware, he is but one figure of many, not the proud, standing focus of Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting. His troubled and thoughtful expression is a better representation of what must have been Washington's state of mind before the battle rather than the familiar triumphant pose.
Color photograph of Fonthill
Fonthill Museum, Doylestown, PA, circa 2000.

But it was Mercer's comment on Penn's Treaty with the Indians - he designed and published captions along with images of all the tiles - that reveals not only what the tiles, but what Mercer's life's work, were really about. "In the midst of wharves, factories, ware-houses, and a few ancient smoke-blackened dwellings, a small marble monument now marks the site where the ‘treaty tree," protected by the British garrison in 1776 as a venerable relic, blew down in 1810." An ugly, modern industrial Pennsylvania had replaced and covered up a world where natural beauty and human dignity had once held sway.

Mercer was born in 1856 into a well-to-do Doylestown family - his father was a naval officer who became a gentleman farmer - that became even wealthier when his mother's widowed, childless sister Elizabeth Chapman Lawrence moved in with them when Mercer was thirteen. She funded his education at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, from which he graduated in 1881. (Mercer never did practice law.) Her wealth also permitted him to undertake numerous journeys, construction projects, and collect thousands of artifacts both pre-Columbian and early-American. 

Mercer spent most of the 1880s in Europe and Egypt, writing journals, taking photographs, and collecting antiques before turning to the archaeology of his own Delaware Valley. (He also explored archaeological sites in the Midwest and the Yucatan). Mercer produced a steady stream of books and scholarly articles as a
A black and white image of Mercer sitting on a bench holding an artifact.
Henry Chapman Mercer with Native American artifacts, circa 1895.
member of the University of Pennsylvania's new Department of Archaeology and Paleontology from 1891 to 1897. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1895. But he resigned his university post to concentrate on the Bucks County Historical Society, which he had helped to found in 1880, and local history.
Color tiles on a wall at the museum.
Mercer tiles from Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Doylestown, PA.

A passionate collector of the marker tools and artifacts of early America,Mercer was able to recreate the old Pennsylvania German style of making pottery and tiles.  His tiles were an instant success with marker Boston and Philadelphia patrons of the Arts and Crafts movement, who tried to resurrect early American technology as an antidote to the growing standardization and uniformity of industrial production. They were following in the footsteps of English artist and writer William Morris who had looked to medieval England as an antidote for the same. Pennsylvania commissioned his tiles for its new capitol.

Mercer next turned to architecture. Between 1907 to 1916, he experimented with exposed reinforced concrete and made it the basic element of the three buildings which form the core of the "Mercer Mile" in Doylestown: Fonthill, his mansion; the Bucks County Historical Society's Mercer Museum, which houses his enormous collection of artifacts and antiques as well as documents pertaining to the region; and the Moravian Tile Works, modeled on the Spanish missions of California, where he supervised further craft work. An architect, archaeologist, craftsman, and collector of early Americana, Mercer's scholarly, writings, which are still well-respected, document his belief that study and proximity to earlier times would ease and enhance the life of modern humanity.
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