Monday, May 20, 2024

View of John Reardon & Sons’ Soap Factory and Fort Washington Park, Cambridgeport. (Photo: History Cambridge)

As part of History Cambridge’s mission to collect and share the stories of all Cantabrigians, we are embarking on a new way of engaging with the city’s history. From The Port to Porter Square, from Harvard to Strawberry Hill, Cambridge’s neighborhoods have evolved through the centuries but always have their own special stories to tell. Beginning this year, we’ll highlight a different pocket of the city in our Neighborhood History Centers, based in community centers, storefronts and public spaces around town. We are beginning this initiative in 2023 with Cambridgeport, recognizing that it is a dynamic and diverse neighborhood with a fascinating history. Our overarching goal is to engage residents in discussions about the relevance of the neighborhood’s history as well as building a more complete and nuanced historical record.

In the late 17th century, much of the land that now makes up the Cambridgeport neighborhood was owned by Sir William Phipps, an immigrant from Bristol, England, who had made his fortune by discovering a sunken Spanish treasure ship in the West Indies. Upon arriving in Massachusetts, Phipps married a Boston woman and began to buy up property in Cambridge; soon he owned most of the eastern part of town. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, much of this land was taken from Phipps’ descendants, who had allied themselves with the Tory cause. By the turn of the 19th century, the Soden, Inman and Boardman families owned three large farms making up the majority of Cambridgeport. Its major road, Main Street, connected the neighborhood to New Hampshire and Vermont to the north, allowing for products from these areas to be transported to Cambridge for shipment by boat along the Charles River and out to the Atlantic seaboard.

As commerce grew along Main Street, merchants and civic leaders began to champion the development of the waterfront. Canals and piers were built to handle the increase in water-borne trade, and two of the most prominent Cambridgeport land owners of the early 19th century – Francis Dana and Leonard Jarvis – began construction of a dike and drainage system to make the neighborhood’s marshland available for building. These developments, along with the construction of the West Boston Bridge in the 1790s, led to a greater economic connection of the neighborhood to other areas of Massachusetts and New England and to a distinct Cambridgeport identity that prompted residents to seek political independence from the rest of the town. A petition was presented to the state Legislature in 1842 requesting that Cambridgeport, East Cambridge and Old Cambridge be designated separate towns. Although this petition was ultimately unsuccessful, Cambridgeport residents retained their sense of neighborhood cohesion well into the 20th century.

By the mid-19th century, industrial production had taken root in Cambridgeport. While 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 the neighborhood. 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.

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.

Cambridgeport is also home to Revolutionary War sites such as Fort Washington, centers of innovation such as the Polaroid Building and Clark’s Observatory, and important sites in the history of the Black community in Cambridge, including St. Augustine’s African Orthodox Church and the Howard Industrial School, which provided assistance and employment to freedmen after the Civil War.

As we embark on this model of doing local history, we are excited to partner with organizations such as Black History in Action for Cambridgeport and the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association, which are already doing important historical work in the neighborhood, as well as with citywide organizations such as the Cambridge Historical Commission, the Cambridge Public Library and the Cambridge Black History Project. We invite you to join us on this exploration of the places, people and events that have shaped Cambridgeport over the centuries, and we welcome your contributions to the rich mosaic of stories about this diverse and dynamic neighborhood. Sign up for our e-news to learn more about the events and activities we have planned for our year of exploring Cambridgeport.

Cambridgeport resources can be found at the following websites:

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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 recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with one another – 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 “Who Are Cambridge Workers?” Make history with us at historycambridge.org.


Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.