Today, while cruising through Doylestown, Pa., I was reminded of a visit I made a few years ago to the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.
Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a Renaissance man. Harvard educated, he was a historian, archaeologist, lawyer, anthropologist, architect, collector, ceramist, businessman and major contributor to the Arts & Crafts movement.
Today he is probably best known for the three buildings he designed in his hometown of Doylestown – Font Hill, the 44-room castle-like structure that served as his home and is now a museum; the Mercer Museum, a six-story concrete castle to house his vast collection of early American objects and tools; and Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, the working museum, also castle-like, that once housed the factory for his hand-crafted tile business. All three buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Those familiar with the Arts & Crafts movement also associate the name Mercer with the tiles and their distinctive glazes that are still produced in his name today.
After a three-year stint as curator of American and prehistoric archaeology at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1890s, Mercer saw a jumble of old agricultural tools and household utensils for sale and realized how quickly American pre-industrial history was being destroyed by modernization. He rummaged bake-ovens, wagon-houses, cellars, haylofts, smoke houses and chimney-corners for his collection.
After collecting pre-industrial tools, he rebelled against the machine age and embraced the hand-wrought work of the Arts & Crafts style. Fearing Pennsylvania-German ceramics were dying out, he established a studio, India House, on his family’s estate.
He became frustrated with his own attempts at pottery, and in his disappointment came to believe he could best perpetuate Pennsylvania-German ceramic traditions by manufacturing tiles.
The museum can be visited throughout the year, with self-guided tours every half hour. Tour goers will be enchanted by the Spanish Mission architecture, the use of Mercer tiles throughout, a video about the history of the creator, and a peek at ceramists at work.
Among Mercer’s earliest sources of inspiration were motifs on cast iron stove plates and Old World folk images transplanted to Colonial America by immigrant settlers. He said they were “eminently appropriate for the decoration of mural tiles,” according to a museum panel. In fact, he named the business Moravian Pottery and Tile Works after the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, where he copied the earliest designs from stove plates.
He used red clay from nearby Point Pleasant, Pa., and when a batch of tiles was ruined in the firing process, he learned to develop suitable glazes, maintaining fastidious records of glaze recipes that are still used in the tile works today.
For motifs, Mercer was inspired by his own collections and the scholarly books he read, tracing designs and casting molds. In 1900 he traveled to Europe to seek historic models and gained a new appreciation for medieval tiles.
He found examples from ruined abbeys, cathedrals and churches of Great Britain and excavated them and made molds. Observing how centuries of being trodden on had worn away the tiles, exposing the red clay body while glaze remained in the recessed areas, and admiring the contrast, he developed his technique of replicating the old look in new tiles.
Plaster molds formed the designs that air dried for two weeks. A buff slip would be applied, dried, and then an underglaze poured over that would be rubbed off to reveal the slip coating. It was finished with a lead glaze.
His largest tile commission was for the floor of the Pennsylvania Capitol. Approximately 16,000 square feet of tiles with nearly 400 mosaics depict Keystone State history, from Indian activities and artifacts to automobiles and the telephone, with native Pennsylvania fauna and flora interspersed throughout. Mercer tiles were installed in thousands of private homes and public buildings, often depicting scenes of the departure of Christopher Columbus, literary figures such as Rip Van Winkle, or schools and firehouses.
Ships, too, were a popular motif, representing the allure and romance of the sea, and Mercer depicted such vessels as the Santa Maria, the Mayflower and the fabled ghost ship Flying Dutchman. He also designed a five-tile series of characters from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: the Merchant, Prioress, Knight, Doctor and Wife of Bath.
Today, red clay comes from nearby lakes where it is a byproduct of dredging. The clay is run through screens to remove large rocks and sticks, then mixed again with a dye and extruded into blocks that are stored in plastic in a cellar.
Leaded clay is still used in keeping with Mercer’s recipe — it gives more vibrant colors.