Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), an important figure in the American Arts and Crafts Movement, was founder, owner, and principal artist of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. He rebelled against the mass-produced tiles common at the turn of the century, and in 1899 began commercial production of tiles with a distinctively handmade look from native Pennsylvania clay formed by a hand press. Around 1908 he introduced a new style of tiles called "brocade" characterized by silhouettes modeled in high relief as opposed to the customary flat mosaic tiles. These new brocade tiles were used to produce an extensive series entitled "Tiles of the New World." Manuscript notes by Mercer included in Cleota Reed's book (cited at the end of this document) reveal the artist's thinking behind the series: "Unlike prints or paintings from nature, the clay patterns are conventionalized pictures, not intended to be correctly drawn, or to show perspective, distance or the scale of size or natural objects, but like the ornamental carvings of the old Cathedrals, to decorate the room by balancing each other as units of one continuous frieze or border, while telling a story in their own way."
In 1913 Mercer marketed the first twenty-nine of the eventual seventy-five scene "New World" series. They were produced as modular pieces in standard heights of 8 or 14 inches, and depicted scenes of early exploration of the New World from Leif Ericsson through Columbus and his successors, as well as scenes of Aztec and Mayan life. The "New World" tiles were the most popular of the relief series produced by Mercer, with the "Departure of Columbus" being the design in greatest demand.
It is from the "New World" series that Iowa State College librarian Charles Harvey Brown, in 1924, selected nine subjects to decorate the fireplace in the new Faculty Reading Room. In a letter to Mercer, the library director stated that he wanted designs that "incorporated fact with fancy to denote a reaching out into the unknown, i.e., the seeking for new knowledge through research."
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