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Between 1897 and 1930, Henry Chapman Mercer, a gentleman anthropologist, set out to collect the handmade tools of everyday American life, just as industrialization was making these tools obsolete.


In 1913, Mercer began work on a six-story poured-in-place concrete castle to house them near his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

More than 30,000 objects from Mercer's collection—from tiny butter molds to car-sized threshing machines—are displayed within the soaring arches of his eccentric structure.


Many of them are simply strapped to pillars or hung from the ceiling, often giving the sense that one is standing somehow upside-down amidst the proliferation of objects. The Piranesian result is one of the most unusual and awe-inspiring museums in the world.


Rather than reproducing each tool's original workshop context to show how butchery, for example, or coopering—barrel-making—equipment was actually used, Mercer's dense sense of display, combined with the odd angles of the building's numerous alcoves and winding stairwells, force museum visitors to appreciate the tools as aesthetic objects.

The museum is thus more like a sprawling archive of hand-crafted forms, each of which embodies the needs, wants, knowledge, and available resources of 19th-century Americans.



Over 30 years, Mercer gathered a near-encyclopedic assemblage of pre-industrial tools, classifying them by trade.

Around the building's edges, scissors, pans, funnels, and confectionery molds sit next to glass-blowing pipes and pontils, while a fire-fighting engine, gallows, and a bored wooden sewage pipe hang precariously over balconies into the central atrium.




Most, if not all, of the tools are indecipherable to the modern eye. They have since been replaced by completely new technologies, or, at the very least, by mass-produced substitutes that bear little formal resemblance to the original tools they came from .


Take the hornsmithing equipment, for example: once used to turn the horns of cattle and oxen into everything from combs (and other hair accessories) to ladles, bowls, and cups, this particular breed of equipment became obsolete at the end of the 19th century. At that point, newly invented celluloid took horn's place as an all-purpose, plastic material.


Previously valuable horn-working tools—such as the standing horse, drawknife, and quarnet—were simply discarded as the particular problem they had been invented to solve disappeared.

Mercer's foresight in collecting these extinct tools allows modern visitors to see and understand an entire taxonomy of expired technologies through which early Americans shaped their world.



Aside from sheer visual spectacle, the Mercer Museum also stands as a structurally complex monument to forgotten knowledge, a sprawling and labyrinthine catalog of human ingenuity.

In the process, it new serves as a somewhat shocking—at the very least, awe-inspiring—reminder of the amount of work involved in the creating the artifacts of everyday life, work that, in an era of mass production, is often neither witnessed nor performed by human beings at all.


And, for Venue, equipped with our own motley assemblage of survey devices and instruments, the museum also offered a particularly fascinating immersion in the lessons to be learned by reading a culture through the tools and equipment it far too often takes for granted.


The museum itself—an imposing Gothic knot of arches, roofs, and chimneys—is a surreal sight, towering above the suburban homes of Doylestown.

It is open every day of the week, hours depending. It is well worth a detour for anyone passing between New York and Philadelphia.

Upon first reading about it, Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello–a structure he himself designed and that he filled with strange devices, such as a room-sized clock that partially disappears through the floor, and a collection of paleontological artifacts, including mastodon bones—sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.


Amidst this symmetrical house of complex moving walls and shelves, hidden servants' passages, and meteorological equipment, the early days of a nation destined to become the United States were given a speculative, scientific air, where the European Enlightenment met the giant, extinct species of the New World, and an unmapped landscape creased with unearthly rivers meandering always further outward through endless plains and distant mountains.

Described that way, Monticello sounds not unlike "Solomon’s House," a fabulous scientific research facility featured in Sir Francis Bacon’s 17th-century utopian science fiction tale, The New Atlantis.


The Invisible College or the House of Solomon, Teophilus Schweighardt,1618, via.

Solomon’s House, we read, is a kind of super-observatory, a temple of science inside of which natural philosophers manage vast, artificial landscapes and operate complex machines, in spatial scenarios that rival anything we might read about today in Dubai or China.

Bacon offers a lengthy inventory of the devices available for use there: "We have... great and spacious houses where we imitate and demonstrate meteors... We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation... We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions... We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made..."

Thus, hoping to encounter a kind of Solomon's House of the early Americas, built by a U.S. President, its walls filled with mysterious devices and its rooms lined with old bones and fossils, with maps of unknown frontier lands greeting every visitor in the entrance hall, Venue went out of its way to visit Monticello, on the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia.



Alas, in reality, Jefferson's house is interesting, but by no means the steampunk-like fantasy of para-scientific insights, moving walls, and secret passages that at least one half of Venue was giddily—naively?—anticipating.

As it was, Venue arrived in a foggy downpour after a long drive across the state, arriving just in time for the final tour of the day, on which we were the only people.


The start of Jefferson's 7-Day Clock, in the entrance hall of Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


The clock continues through the floor.


This wind direction indicator is connected to a weathervane on the roof.


A revolving service door. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Of course, Monticello does, indeed, have the famous clock that stretches down from the foyer all the way into the cellar, where the passage of time is marked by painted lines on the structure of the house itself; and there is the garden outside with its mysterious lost roads.

But there is also the mundane reality of a house stocked with old furniture and fancy porcelain, and the understated historical fact that it's, in fact, deeply misleading to refer to anything here as a servant's passage, when it is now so widely known as to be satirized in pop culture that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner and the people walking around through hidden doors and tight corridors from room to room, remaining out of sight whenever possible, weren't employees but human possessions.



The lower jawbone of a mastodon, displayed at Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

In the end, there were the old bones, maps, and artifacts from the expedition of Lewis & Clark; but we did not spend nearly as much time there as we thought we might, and instead continued, while the rain continued to fall, on our way north to Washington D.C.
 
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