In the lobby of the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, five tall-case clocks stand at attention. They're beautiful examples of craftsmanship, sure, but they represent something more: the notion that almost any object we bring into our homes can have rippling effects.
"The idea of the importance of time in governing human activity really started taking off in the 18th century, as people had more access to timekeeping devices," said Cory Amsler, the museum's curator. A tall-case clock, for those who could afford it, altered the very rhythm of people's lives.
Considering objects and architecture, the forces that shape them and how they, in turn, shape day-to-day life, is the mission of "House & Home," a traveling exhibition from the National Building Museum in Washington, that's on view at the Mercer through March 15.
It's a fitting venue, as collector Henry Mercer was an avid student of architecture and industrial design, and as Bucks County was the site of some of the boldest experiments in suburban planning as a means of shaping 20th-century society. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Thomas Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, will speak about those experiments at the Mercer at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Amsler learned about the exhibition when the Building Museum asked to borrow a few objects - a fruit-drying rack and household cleaning implements - from Mercer's collection of 50,000 objects. (Only a third of those are on display in the museum castle, a hoarder's paradise where boats, wagons, machinery, and household tools are stuffed into every corner and even hang from the ceiling.)
When Amsler eventually was offered the chance to showcase a condensed version of the "House & Home" exhibit at the Mercer Museum, he decided to add a component devoted to Mercer's own intensive study of early Delaware Valley architecture.
In 1923, Mercer "wrote a monograph, 'The Dating of Old Houses,' looking at how one could date historic structures based on the technology that was used to construct them," he said. "He went on research trips across the countryside, essentially excavating as if he was an archaeologist. He'd go and knock on someone's door and say, 'Can I see your attic?' "
Mercer took photographs and copious notes, made plaster casts of the joints in log houses, and persuaded homeowners to let him remove pieces of hardware, samples of which are on display. Some of his assumptions about what he was finding have since been disproved. For example, he looked at nails, screws, and latches to infer the age of a house but wrongly assumed new hardware immediately replaced older variations. But his assertion that log-cabin construction techniques could be traced to Scandinavia is still referenced by researchers today.
Mercer's nearly century-old findings appear alongside more recent artifacts from the traveling exhibit, including items that appear mundane today but that had profound effects, particularly on women. For example, there's a thermostat from the 1930s and the advent of forced-air furnaces, which relieved people from the endless task of stoking coal fires. And there's an electric iron, which replaced irons that had to be heated over a fire or stove.
There also are video presentations on adaptive reuse and various approaches to affordable housing, examining how communities evolved in ways developers couldn't always predict.
Such was the case with Concord Park and Levittown, the two planned Bucks County communities that Sugrue will discuss.
Concord Park, built in 1954 in Trevose, was designed by developer Morris Milgram as one of the region's first suburban, racially integrated communities. His aim was to set aside 55 percent of homes for white residents and 45 percent for African American families at a time when most suburban housing was closed to African Americans. Levittown, on the other hand, was exclusively white when it opened in 1952.
"Both places are architecturally close to identical," Sugrue said. The same firm even created the interior design for the model houses at both developments.
"But one became a nationally celebrated experiment in racial integration in the 1950s, and the other became a site of intense opposition to the first African American family moving in in the 1950s," he said. "In some ways, it's a story of two contrasting approaches to race and civil rights in the same region at a critical moment in our country's history."
Over time, Levittown remained mostly white, largely as the Levitt brothers had envisioned.
As for Concord Park? It enjoyed a generation of racial integration, but as white residents moved out, "they were often replaced by African Americans, who didn't have very many choices in the suburbs," Sugrue said. "In the long run, both places today are segregated, but the paths to that are quite different."
That's not surprising, he noted: Philadelphia today remains one of the most racially segregated areas in the United States.
"The battle that played out in the 1950s was: Are we going to have racially inclusive suburbs? Are we going to provide access to the suburban dream . . . to residents on a nondiscriminatory basis? It's a battle that, by and large in the United States, was lost."
Take a drive through these suburban developments, he said, and you'll see more than just tract housing.
"It's a reminder that Bucks County and Philadelphia were just as important to the successes and failures of the civil rights movement in the United States as Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma."
House & Home, until March 15 at the Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. 215-345-0210, mercermuseum.org.