A chemical engineering coop student analyzes soap at Lever Brothers in Cambridge in 1922. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

Although many contemporary Cantabrigians do not recognize the term “Greasy Village,” their counterparts a century ago would have been all too familiar with this nickname for Cambridgeport. In the 1850s, Cambridge companies such as Reardon’s and Alden Speare’s Sons made primarily candles in their factories. But by the late 1800s, as candles gave way to gaslight, these companies began to focus more on lamp oil and soap. Lever Brothers, which had long been successful in England, entered the U.S. market with a Cambridge factory in the 1890s and soon came to dominate the local soap industry.

Integral to the manufacturing of soap was the steady supply of animal byproducts from the slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants of nearby East Cambridge. Cambridgeport came to be known as “Greasy Village” because, when the carts carrying supplies to the soap factories turned too quickly on the neighborhood’s rutted streets, pieces of bones and lard would fall off, leading to a distinct smell and a greasy film that residents complained would linger long after the debris was removed.

A trade Card for a Cambridgeport soap company circa 1880. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

The area around the soap factories in Cambridgeport was home to many of the workers who labored there, including Irish in the 1850s and 1860s, French Canadians in the last quarter of the 19th century and Italians, Portuguese and Poles during the first half of the 20th century. This last wave of immigrants from abroad were joined by Black Southerners heading north as part of the Great Migration. The changing demographics of the soap industry over the past two centuries reflects the shifts in the city’s overall population, imbuing the neighborhood with a rich variety of cultural traditions that it retains.

History Cambridge plans a Sept. 29 fundraiser to explore Cambridgeport’s past and look to its future. Cambridgeport resident and History Cambridge board president Amy Devin says:

“Cambridgeport has been home now for almost 20 years. And while we love the neighborhood’s proximity to city life, its many green spaces and old Victorian homes, it is the community that keeps us here. It is our neighbors on Henry Street, the families of Tot Lot and the Morse School, the people you run into in Hastings Square or at the corner store that are the reason we’ve put down roots here. I know we’re just one of many families from past and present to feel that way about Cport, and I hope History Cambridge’s upcoming year exploring the neighborhood can tap into that connection.”

As we prepare to focus on Cambridgeport in our 2023 program year, the fundraiser will include Charlie Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, who will share the rich history of the neighborhood, its people and its institutions. Hooked Catering will provide a raw bar buffet for the occasion, inspired by the oysters that Indigenous and early Euro-American peoples collected in the area that is now Magazine Beach. All are invited to this evening of food, drink, exploration and support for the work of History Cambridge in collecting, preserving and sharing the stories of all Cantabrigians.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We strive to be the most relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge. We do that by recognizing that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Our theme for 2022 is “How Does Cambridge Work?” Make history with us at cambridgehistory.org.


Beth Folsom is program manager for History Cambridge.