Return to the Mercer Museum

We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.

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The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.

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I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.

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I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.

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The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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Doylestown Kids’ Castle

I have mentioned a few times before that there comes a point – frequently during the colder months – where cabin fever hits my kids, they start acting like wee caged beasts, and they desperately need to burn off their excess energy.  With that in mind, this weekend we took them to Doylestown.




The Central Park in Doylestown has a superb playground known as Kids’ Castle that provides lots of opportunities for climbing, balancing, sliding, and swinging in a safe and clean environment.  This was not our first visit to the Kids’ Castle playground but it has been a good while since we were last there.  The playground is a community funded project and, as such, it was encouraging to see that changes and developments have been made since we were last there.  It is great to see such signs of success for a community project.



My boys had a whale of a time clambering inside the many layers of the castle, shouting greetings from the tallest turrets, whizzing down the tube slides.  They also spent some time on the swings, including a tire swing that made them queasy.  What they were most enamoured by on this visit, however, were the pieces of equipment that were new to them.  There was a large piece of play equipment in the shape of a pirate ship, complete with a sea serpent slide, scramble nets, and canons that made a “boom” when whacked.  My three younger boys had soon turned it into the scene of an imaginative game I think loosely on the theme of piratical vikings – if that isn’t a tautology.


They also loved a new addition to the castle, a kind of hydraulic fireman’s pole with a platform.  They could step from the castle onto the platform and it would slowly descend and deliver them to ground level.  The younger three could not get enough of this.  They thought it was brilliant fun.  My oldest son – almost 13 – was confounded by what they could possibly find so entertaining about slowly descending from one level to another.  I had no sooner told him that it was because he was getting older than his almost 41 year old father hopped on the pole and had a go himself.  I guess it isn’t age related after all.



After the older three were tiring, the 6 year old still had energy galore to spare.  He wanted to go and look at the outdoor gym equipment so he and I headed off there to see what the equipment did, what exercises could be done, what if anything he could do there to burn off more energy.  I imagine the gym equipment is a great resource for people who enjoy that type of thing.  There were clear instructions regarding how to use the equipment in different ways.  The youngest and I did some of the exercises but mostly he just ran and jumped and climbed until finally his energy levels dropped to a reasonable level.




Flea Market and Kids’ Castle

We, as a family, love second-hand stuff.  I am frugal and budget-conscious so obviously the financial element of buying second-hand wares appeals to me.  I am also environmentally aware so I do like to think that in using something old instead of buying something new I am saving something from landfill and thus reducing my carbon footprint.  However, the real delight comes from the thrill of the unknown, the never knowing quite what you might happen across in all that rummaging, the hope of finding a buried treasure (within one’s own context of treasure, of course).  As a teenager, I would buy a lot of my clothes from charity shops not only because I was budget savvy but also because I didn’t want to have the same style as everyone else so buying vintage helped me maintain my non-conformity.  I still feel that way now as it is nice to have odds and sods around the house that, even if they were mass-produced once upon a time, are now that little bit more unusual.

Like mother, like sons.  My four boys also love a good rake through second-hand items whether at a jumble sale, a charity shop or car boot sale.  When the children and I were living with my in-laws prior to departing for America, one of the boys’ treats for a day out was to walk into the city centre and have some money to spend in the charity shops there.  They were enormously excited to do so.  There was a big car boot sale held in an old airfield near where my brother-in-law lives in England that my kids also loved to go to.  The scale of this boot sale was massive.  It was so big that my kids could actually draw up a shopping list of things they hoped to find and, for the most part, they would be successful.  I should explain, perhaps, that a car boot sale is an event whereby people bring the things they want to sell to a location and they set up their tables and goods in front of the open boots (trunks) of their cars.  Didn’t want that to be lost in translation.  These boot sales always kick off really early in the morning, before the crack of dawn, and you want to be sure you are there early otherwise the dealers have gone through the place like locusts and harvested all the very best stuff.  Now I have a mob of kids who I cannot prise out of bed in the morning without threats.  I actually need to invent a giant shoe horn that assists me in levering them out of bed.  Even on Christmas morning, with all the anticipation of a visit from Santa having occurred, Mr Pict and I have to wake them up.  It’s ridiculous.  I definitely need that giant shoe horn before they become teenagers.  There have been two exceptions to their bed-limpet ways.  The first was the morning we were getting on the plane to come to America.  A whispered reminder that this was the day they would see Daddy again had them each pinging out of bed like Dracula from his coffin.  The other exception was any time we were going to a car boot sale with their Uncle.  Even on cold, dark winter mornings, they would leap out of bed, get dressed and ready, wrap themselves up in gloves, hats and scarves and off we would set in the car ready to go pillage some stalls and turn one person’s tat into our treasure.

You will now understand, therefore, that we are excited by the arrival of yard sale and flea market season.  We have not yet been to a yard sale.  I think I would find a single family yard sale a bit awkward – a bit like those posh shops you accidentally wander into where the hawk-eyed staff outnumber the customers by six to one – but we will certainly hit up some multi-family, street-wide yard sales.  Saturday, however, was our first Flea Market of the season.

In addition to looking for things we might need or want, the kids and I set ourselves a challenge to (quietly and tactfully) identify the most hideous, most awful item on sale at any car boot sale.  We have found some incredible winners in the past from grotesque dolls to skid-marked underwear to a “pre-loved” item consenting adults really ought to be keeping in private and locked away.  Really.  Thankfully the kids didn’t identify that one.  Judder.  Saturday’s ugliest item was quite tame by comparison, some sort of wooden carving of a troll.  Ugly but not requiring hand-sanitiser.  We also look for a theme each time.  Often the theme ends up being Tigger or Pooh.  There must be a warehouse somewhere just stuffed to the gunnels with Winnie the Pooh themed stuff that people collect just to sell second-hand.  The theme of Saturday’s Flea Market was definitely Beanie Babies.  Every second stall had a collection of Beanie Babies for sale.  This very much appealed to my seven year old who absolutely loves cuddly toys.  One lady was selling her collection for $2 each but told him she would give him a manager’s special of 2 for a dollar.  So he bought four. He also bought a boglin (remember those toys?) and a hat so he could perfect his Michael Jackson dance moves (the Wii has a lot to answer for).  My eleven year old bought a cuddly rockhopper penguin because he loves penguins.  The other boys just bought random things that took their fancy, from superhero figures to a hula hoop.  One stall holder even gave them a free Scalextric set.  Mr Pict bought a large metal shovel (for the snow, not to rid himself of his troublesome wife), a leaf blower and a vintage captain’s chair.  I can attest to the comfort of the latter because I am sitting on it right now.



After all of that raking and bargaining and shopping, we decided to take the boys to burn some energy off somewhere new.  We, therefore, headed to Doylestown where we had heard there was a large castle themed playground.  It was indeed a very cool playground, with a multi-storey central castle with various slides, chutes and tunnels, and surrounding play equipment.  My eleven year old found he was verging on being too tall to properly play inside the castle as he was having to crouch down too far which slowed him down.  His three wee brothers, however, gallivanted around for hours playing a game about knights defeating a dragon.  The design of the playpark meant that Mr Pict, our oldest son and I could sit back in the sun and let them run around to their hearts’ content.  They were careering down various slides, clambering up steps and jumping across “lava” bridges and all with minimal supervision, which was great because I loathe having to hover over them as it feels inhibiting.  It was a scorcher of a day so we could not stay too long but we will definitely return over the summer to play there again.

And, yes, I had a quick run around in the castle too and exited out of the curvy tube slide.  Just for research photo-documenting, of course.