Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Gill Deford of West Cambridge shows off his Mayflower Poultry butcher block, with its distinctive “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” branding. (Photo: Suzanne Preston Blier)

The Mayflower Poultry shop is closing its doors after 89 years of business and moving to Boston to open as an online business. The company’s “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign is up for auction Thursday.

This 6-foot-tall sign, which was trademarked in 2005, is a major Cambridge tourist attraction, garnering such interest that the 621 Cambridge St. shop has used it to sell merchandise such as T-shirts, hats and butcher blocks. In short, the sign is an East Cambridge landmark, evoking the long history of the neighborhood and Cambridge more generally and appearing prominently in such national sites as Yelp, where Kathy K. wrote: “When I first moved to the Cambridge area years ago, I was once very lost on Cambridge Street … I nearly jumped the curb when I spotted the somewhat famous landmark of the ‘Live Poultry Fresh Killed’ sign in front of the Mayflower Poultry Co. Who knew I’d one day be a neighbor and fan of the place.”

A large group of residents from neighborhoods all around Cambridge are circulating a petition to landmark the sign, with creators saying they would be happy to support a crowdfunding campaign to match the winning price at auction. They have tried to reach out to the owner.

The petition has been submitted to the Cambridge Historical Commission, which will decide whether a landmarking deserves to be studied. If members vote to proceed, staff will spend up to a year studying whether the application has merit. This will then come back to the commission, which will take another vote on whether to propose landmarking the sign, deciding what conditions may be determinative of the sign’s later use if is is landmarked. For example: Does it need to stay on this same building, or could it be moved? Finally, the City Council votes.

There will be ample time for Cambridge residents from across the city (and elsewhere) to weigh in. What this petition does is to start a process, so we can begin to think about these issues.

The council set up this process in 1983 to preserve and conserve buildings and sites of significance in Cambridge’s history. Preservationists now recognize the importance of saving parts of history that include the legacies of workers and émigrés in visual markers such as the now landmarked Shell and EMF signs.

As the neighborhood guide in Boston magazine notes, East Cambridge has had a vital role in our city’s diverse ethnic history: “Filled with industrial jobs, the neighborhood welcomed working-class residents who spent their days on the factory lines. Immigrants from Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania and Poland found their home base in East Cambridge, with their church parish serving as a touchstone for their local ethnic community.”

As the area has filled with life sciences, pharmaceutical and venture capital companies, “some of the most beloved locales are fading away,” the article says. “But there are still plenty of iconic spots going strong, ranging from fish markets and bakeries to Mayflower Poultry, with its ‘Live Poultry Fresh Killed’ sign calling attention out front.”

It is widely recognized that buildings can be repurposed, but maintaining important examples of the vernacular forms once broadly seen in East Cambridge and other neighborhoods in Cambridge is important to present and future generations in conveying distinctive examples of this neighborhood’s history. The area’s rapid change risks depriving East Cambridge of one of its most interesting and important historically work- and industry-related structures, costing its identity, spirit of place, heritage and cultural landscape. The “Live Poultry, Fresh Killed” sign is linked inextricably to the history and culture of this neighborhood, and indeed the working-class history of Cambridge itself.

In the first half of the 20th century Italian, Portuguese, Polish and other immigrant families would buy their chicken, geese and fresh eggs from Mayflower. When one of the authors of this piece was a young child in the 1960s, his grandmother – born in Italy – would take him to Mayflower to buy her chicken. In the tradition of the old country, the chicken would be brought out live and held upside down by its feet for her to inspect and feel. The chicken would cluck and flap its wings. If she liked it, the chicken would be brought to an area in the back, butchered and wrapped in paper ready to be cooked for dinner. No preservatives needed, and fresh as can be.

Too much of this city’s history is being lost or forgotten, Kristina Kehrer wrote in 2016, and some “have worried about Cambridge losing that blue-collar edge, because the blue-collar is where you get your grit. It may not always be pretty, but it is certainly tough with a can-do spirit, and much needed in crucial moments. I have also worried about Cambridge losing its ‘edge’ in general. An edge created by the colorful, creative types who live life outside the parameters of a shiny new Cambridge built on ‘bio-this,’ ‘techy-that’ and copious hipster endeavors.”

The East Cambridge Conservation District Study Committee is evaluating whether to create a conservation district in this important part of the city. The Mayflower sign is one of a select number of properties important to Cambridge and specifically to its economic and working-class history – and also to its artistic vibrance.

The sign’s unique “LIVE POULTRY Fresh KILLED” black lettering on a white background, with its italicized and script-font “Fresh” and boldly lettered “KILLED” layered over an orangey-yellow chicken image, displays the kind of eclectic and resonant mix of elements consistent with the one-time factory worker community. It harkens back to the days when Cambridge specialized in blue-collar industries that supported the working class.

Protecting the “Live Poultry, Fresh Killed” sign with local landmark status will enable its unique qualities to be maintained for the benefit of all Cambridge. An official designation would “foster appropriate use and wider public knowledge” of its distinctive characteristics and significance, in the language of landmarking commissions.

With the interim protections of the East Cambridge Neighborhood Conservation District Study ending Sept. 2, landmarking is the only way to protect this historic sign. The petition to preserve the Mayflower sign and the efforts of East Cambridge to create a conservation district to help safeguard part of the architectural legacy of this important part of the city and its émigré and factory past is available at

This effort is supported by a number of residents in East Cambridge and preservationists throughout the city, along with the Cambridge Citizens Coalition, a citywide political group founded in 2019 by a variety of neighborhood group leaders interested in the future of our city.

Chuck Hinds and Suzanne Preston Blier write for the Cambridge Citizens Coalition.