Solo Traveler: Old Tools

Medical instruments from the collection of Henry Chapman Mercer. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Wooden cigar store figures from the Mercer collection. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Solo Traveler
Old Tools

One of the best things about traveling deeply, staying in a place for a while, renting a room or a tiny apartment from local people, is that you come to know the locals, and they come to know you.

If they discover you have certain interests, in history or art, for example, they will introduce you to things you would never otherwise run across.

When I went to India in 1985 my hosts introduced me to a man who collected tools. Old tools. Tools that few people could remember what they had been used for. Tools that would have little use outside of India, like a tool to clean your elephant’s toenails.

His little museum was private, kept in his home in Delhi. The house was large and so was the extended family that lived there. It had an unusual architectural feature: a basement. Down there, where it was cool and dry, he kept his collection, arranged neatly on several tables. A single paragraph painstakingly typed on 3×5 cards was placed in front of each item.

Even though it has been 30 years since I was in Delhi, I can still remember some of the unusual objects. One tool was used to pry open a coconut and then used to scoop out the meat, safely without cutting anyone’s hand. The tools for grooming elephants were many and varied. It made me wonder how Indian elephants ever survived in the jungle on their own.

Years later, it was wonderful to hear from another host about a museum in Doylestown, Penn., where the idea of collecting obsolete tools had been taken to extremes.

At the turn of the last century, Henry Chapman Mercer was interested in archeology, among other things. He realized how fast his world was changing so he decided to save, for posterity, interesting objects from daily life. He couldn’t bear to imagine them lost in ruins, to be dug up in the distant future by archeologists who wouldn’t have a clue what they’d been used for. Nor did he want the organic tools made of wood, leather and cloth to disappear altogether.

He personally built the concrete castle that houses the collection. And what a collection it is.

Everything from the 19th and early 20th century is in there in some form or another: Toys, quilts, machines, buggies, sawmills (yes entire sawmills run by water power), flour mills, tools for rolling tobacco into cigars, guns (black powder and more recent models), medical equipment and remedies, books, farming tools and machines, bread and pastry molds, candy and candle making devices, musical instruments, glassware and glass making tools, ceramics of all sorts, basketry, leather working stamps,  and even old signage.

There were Cigar Store Indians and “Indians” in other guises like the Cigar Store Buffalo Bill Cody. It is an amazing and overwhelming museum. The building itself was a strange medieval stone castle, cold and dim inside, unheated on purpose to preserve the artifacts.

I thought I knew a lot of history but there were things I’d never heard of and many tools were impressive, sophisticated and ingenious. Some, like the medical tools, made me cringe in horror and caused me to be eternally grateful for modern medicine’s non-invasive techniques.

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Rio Rancho and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer, and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website:

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