Today, a shy aristocrat redirects anthropology. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Henry Mercer was born in
1856 into a well-to-do Doylestown, Pennsylvania,
family and educated in private schools. A major
influence in his early life was his Aunt Lela. Aunt
Lela was Elizabeth Lawrence whom Henry James knew, admired, and used as the model for Madeleine
Lee in his novel, Democracy. Aunt Lela
was a whirlwind who swept Mercer into social life
and powerfully fed his sense of self something
he'd need where he was headed in life.
Mercer's biographer Cleota Reed describes him as
intelligent and shy, handsome and aloof . He never married. He studied law
at Harvard, but he soon switched to art and
architecture. First he saw technology as art, then
he saw art as archaeology. When he was only 29, he
wrote a book on Yucatan architecture — trying to
connect it with our early Indian culture.
Meanwhile, he began collecting the stuff of
American folk cultures: wagon fittings, pottery,
illuminated manuscripts, naive art, clothing — an
actual gallows. Mercer worked as a museum curator,
a field anthropologist, an exhibit director, all
the while writing books and articles. But his aloof
ways finally drove him from public museum work and
into another, very different, world.
For Mercer, art, anthropology, and craft were all
of a piece. To understand a people, you had to feel
their crafts with your own fingers. He was strongly
drawn to German and Moravian settlers in
Pennsylvania. In 1898 he built the first of his
many cast-concrete structures, a pottery works for
making Moravian-style tiles. That operation grew
into a huge U-shaped building embossed everywhere
with elaborate tilework — still there today.
Mercer's tiles, elegant as the best medieval ones,
can be found all over America today — tile stoves,
fireplaces, altar pieces, murals, paving stones.
He saw the carryover of a far older world all
around him. He wrote on medieval manuscript
calligraphy, still used by the Pennsylvania Dutch.
In 1914, he created a great seven-story
cast-concrete museum to hold all the neo-medieval
technology he'd collected — technologies being
forever replaced by the modern world. The building
itself looks like a late medieval castle. And when
he'd finished it, he gave it to the Bucks County
Mercer's upbringing taught him to think like an
aristocrat. But, for him, that meant a fierce
independence. He reminded anthropologists that one
of their tasks was to learn how we ourselves were
formed. That meant developing intimacy with
processes that formed us, processes now on the
verge of extinction. In a 1911 lecture on his
tiles, he articulated the forces that, through him,
were changing the field of anthropology. He said,
[This] survival, here in our midst, of an ancient
art with a brilliant history reaching back to the
beginning of civilization [has] changed the current
of my life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds