Eighty-five Aromatic Years In Harvard Square by Catharine K. Wilder

Eighty-five Aromatic Years In Harvard Square

By Catharine K. Wilder

 

A​ ​tiny​ island exists today in Harvard Square about which the poet Robert Hillyer, Harvard ’17, writes:

 

Not all goes up in smoke, here smoke appears

To give stability in changing years​.

 

Leavitt & Peirce, whose name evokes a host of blue haze memories, has the honor of being the oldest store in its original location in Harvard Square today. It has been more than a business for eighty-five years. Mark De Wolfe Howe, ’87, correctly identifies it in verse:

 

Narrowly parted from the Yard

A little college long has stood.

No flunkster ever yet was barred

From gaining all he might of good

About a brand of special knowledge

Untaught within the larger college​.

 

Today, if one stands in the middle of this unique store, and looks around, one instantly concludes that here is a most successful blending of a tobacco business with the history and art pertaining to smokers and their paraphernalia as well as with the history of Harvard, especially its athletics, over nearly a century.

 

The store has passed through three periods of growth to arrive at this distinction. The first began in 1883 when Wallace Peirce, a clerk in Bartlett’s Drug Store, decided to buy Brock’s interest in a tobacco store, known as Leavitt and Brock, located on the present site of the Cambridge Trust Company. The new firm, Leavitt & Peirce, then moved to 438 Harvard Street, its present location. Later this address was changed to 1314-1316 Massachusetts Avenue.

 

The association of these gentlemen lasted until 1922, when they died within a year of each other. Students, only males until after World War I, soon found this store a non-clubman’s club. The genial, big, burly, dark-haired Leavitt and the spare, small, blond, equally-genial Peirce encouraged this by making their location a center for Harvard activities.

 

The eastern front window became a Harvard bulletin board. Hours for team practices, lost and found, athletic scores, and general notices all were posted there. The Crimson regularly noted in its columns, “See Leavitt’s window for details.”

 

The owners set up pool tables in the rear of the store. Billiards were added to these in a room on the second floor above the store. Here students relaxed and made friends.

 

Waldo Peirce, ’08, later confessed that “Leavitt & Peirce was probably one of the reasons it took me five years to get a degree, though the B in A.B. didn’t stand for billiards. It seemed more important at the time to make a run often than to get a c plus or minus in say English A.”

 

Arthur Stanwood Pier, ’95, a non-smoker all his life, indicated that in his sophomore year Leavitt & Peirce was one of his favorite haunts. “I lived,” he wrote, “between Mt. Auburn Street and the river. After a nine o’clock class in Sever or in Massachusetts, by the time I had crossed Massachusetts Avenue I usually found some excuse for dawdling before my eleven o’clock class — so between ten and eleven most mornings I sat with my back against the wall on Leavitt 8c Peirce’s comfortable leather cushions and watched the leisurely activities of two of my classmates, who seemed to be majoring in billiards.”

 

At one time the custom prevailed that no freshmen were allowed to use the tables. Whether this was a rule made by the owners or the students or both is not certain. As a consequence, Mr. Leavitt and Mr. Peirce opened another shop in the next block, which they called the Rendez-Vous Club. The latter did not exist for long, and the rule regarding the freshmen changed.

 

Often the victorious teams brought one of their footballs or baseballs to the store and recorded the date of the game and score on it. Some of these decorated the walls along with oars and photographs of the teams.

 

Fred Leavitt kept a scrapbook of the tickets to Harvard’s athletic events, which today is the most complete one of its kind. He also filed all newspaper articles and pictures which mentioned his store, particularly the ones from the Crimson. These are another rich historical source today.

 

The tickets for Harvard’s games were sold there until the Athletic Association took this responsibility in 1893-1894. For ten years students used to line up on the street the night before the tickets to the big games went on sale. Seated on camp stools with a lamp at their side, they either studied or dozed, while waiting for the store to open. Even after direct sales by the HAA began, a limited number of tickets continued to be sold at Leavitt & Peirce.

 

Railroad and steamship tickets also were available there. Everyone in Cambridge found this a convenient location when they made their travel plans.

 

Like all students, those of this era had ideas how the college should be run and society in general could be improved. Blue books at Leavitt &. Peirce provided the outlet they needed in which to express their concerns as well as their protests. In 1886 a blue book petition produced the formation of an undergraduate organization. In 1888 another was sent to the President and Fellows requesting that the spring recess be “more liberal.” Railroad and steamship companies received petitions for special rates when Harvard games were held away, and the Cambridge civic authorities were requested from time to time to permit student parades on the streets bordering the Yard. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, the first enlistments of Harvard students were recorded in a blue book in this store.

 

Synonymous with the names of the founders is that of Cake Box Mixture. A large black metal cake box always rested on the top of the counter at the right of the entrance. It contained a Leavitt & Peirce tobacco mixture which was prepared in a loft on Church Street. Students were invited to fill their pipes free of charge from this source. If they liked the mixture, they could purchase it in a small metal replica. For eighty-five years Cake Box has been smoked by many a Harvard student and professor. Brooks Atkinson, ’17, had an honest confession to make about it in 1958:

 

Who were the students who lounged grandly on the premises of Leavitt &: Peirce from 1913 to 1917? Do they realize now, more than forty years later, that life is earnest and that there is not a minute to be lost between the cradle and the grave?

 

I never knew who they were because I was always in a hurry to improve each shining hour. Once or twice a year (not often enough to be recognized) I did drop in to take a free pipeful of Cake Box Mixture from the open box on the counter. I tried to give the impression that, if the sample were to my taste, I would order Cake Box Mixture in bulk, and that Leavitt & Peirce and I would thus get on to a good thing that would keep us in close association for years.

 

But it seemed to me that the clerk already knew that I was about the most reliable customer that Dill ever had; and I should not have questioned his judgment if he had raised a reproving hand and moved the sample box out of range. But who were the students leaning on the counter as if they had nothing else to do? Were they the bonafide customers of Cake Box Mixture? Not me​

 

Cake Box not only has provided relaxation and aromatic pleasure for pipe smokers, but it has inspired poems and artistic creations. Norman Hall, ’22, wrote:

 

Marie Antoinette

Was a practical sort;

She was quick with advice

When foodstuffs were short.

The suggestions she made

Tobacconists make:

“Are the people unhappy?

Let ’em try Cake!”

 

Waldo Peirce, ’08, made a sketch of St. Peter smoking a pipe with a group of angels emerging from the enveloping haze. His caption read, “Good old St. Peter, that Heavenly Fixture, Blows his best Halos with Cake Box Mixture.”

 

Lucky was the son who received the parental advice, “If you must smoke, go to Leavitt’s and grow up on Cake Box like a gentleman or be disinherited.”

 

The metal shortage during World War II caused the disappearance of the small cake boxes, which today are a collector’s item. Cake Box comes now in either paper pouches or square metal boxes, and one of the latter is open on the counter to be sampled as it has been over the years.

 

Fred Leavitt and Wallace Peirce made many friends during the thirty-nine years they shared the business. Many students felt free to disclose to them their problems, concerns, joys, and sorrows. The owners provided encouragement, sympathy, and understanding advice when it was needed. In their own way they conducted a counseling service. They helped young men grow up by overcoming momentary hurdles. They even loaned them money, when they thought the request a legitimate one, and they banked their bets when big sports events occurred.

 

The responsibility they assumed sometimes carried with it great anxiety, as when Roger Merriman, ’96, later a distinguished scholar, put a pool ball in his mouth and could not get it out. His father, a Worcester clergyman, was entertaining the Worcester Association of ministers by telling them of Frisky’s success at college, when the telephone rang and he learned what had happened to his son. It was known later that the Cambridge Police Department kept an object like a shoehorn handy for such emergencies.

 

Each June the friendships were rekindled when the gentlemen opened a stand in the Harvard Yard and dispensed free cigars to reunioning graduates. Most of them found time to visit the store and to evoke nostalgic memories while there.

 

The glorious first period of Leavitt & Peirce ended in 1922. President Lowell and other officers of the University realized how firmly rooted it had become in the life of the Harvard community, and they wanted to be sure that this would continue. They encouraged Fred W. Moore, ’93, Treasurer of the Harvard Athletic Association, and Frank Knapp, who had charge of the allotment of tickets at the HAA, to purchase the business. It was understood that Moore would continue in his job while Knapp would manage the store.

 

Period two was to last until 1956. During those years the owners had to cope with the impact of the end of World War I on American life, the Depression, a second World War, and the global upheavals following this. Harvard, too, was changing. President Lowell introduced the new houses; Radchffe’s affiliation with Harvard grew closer and closer following World War II. Women frequented the Yard and the store with ever-increasing informality. Automobiles in greater number made the Harvard community more mobile. The student body reflected the increasingly democratic character of American society, and more and more students and professors from abroad mirrored the advent of a world becoming politically and economically one.

 

Frank Knapp’s warm personality and his smile were great assets at this time, not to mention the momentum of the previous period. However, the changing Harvard scene demanded a new dimension in this store to keep it in the heart of the community surrounding it.

 

A snack bar was the answer to this need. The left front side was leased to Larry and Helen Bradshaw for this purpose. A balcony over this was constructed to enable the students to get to the billiard tables upstairs. This project produced an instant favorable reaction.

 

“In appearance,” wrote Charles C. Bergman ’54, “it was very ordinary, but to the loyal habitue it had a special charm in its complete lack of any decor. . . . The Harvard greats and near-greats, the fashionable, the literary, the athletic, and just the hungry gathered to sample Larry’s dubious hot chocolate served in white, chipped mugs.” Fish cakes and hash with an egg were other specialties at this counter.

 

Just as a coterie became identified with the pool tables of the previous period, so a special group became associated with this snack bar. Dean Landis of the Law School, Roscoe Pound, and Louis Lyons frequently had breakfast there. This ordinary luncheonette created the feeling of “an Elizabethan coffee house to so many people on the Harvard scene.”

 

In time Frank Knapp bought out Moore’s interest. His personality like those of his predecessors became “soaked into the very plaster and lath of the walls.” He tried to maintain all the associations with the University and the Alumni which were possible during those turbulent years. In the early fifties he died. His widow, Minerva, and his stepdaughter, Miss Barbara Ferry, assumed the responsibility of the store. This was indeed an innovation: two women managing Leav-itt & Peirce in Harvard Square.

 

Mrs. Knapp survived her husband by only a few years. Her daughter inherited this “college within a college.” Problems plagued her. With reluctance she removed the pool and billiard tables which were being little used. Rising costs produced financial difficulties with the snack bar. Radcliffe and Harvard students did not help when they conversed too long on the leather stools, thus reducing the number of clients per meal.

 

Miss Ferry was discovering that the smoking paraphernalia chosen by her and her mother did not appeal to men’s tastes. They had introduced various games and gifts, but these moved slowly.

 

Mr. Leavitt and Mr. Peirce had established a wholesale business along with their retail one. Cake Box was an important part of this. All in all Miss Ferry found she had neither the training nor the ability to carry on the business of her stepfather.

 

Throughout periods one and two the store had a friendly relationship with David P. Ehrlich Company in Boston. This tobacco business, founded in 1868 and thus celebrating its lOOth anniversary this year in a new location next to King’s Chapel, was owned by Ferdinand Abraham at the time Leavitt and Peirce opened their store. In 1884 an enterprising young salesman, David P. Ehrlich, joined Mr. Abraham’s staff, and “in good time” married his daughter. Subsequently the firm’s name became David P. Ehrlich Company.

 

Ehrlich, Fred Leavitt, and Wallace Peirce became friends. They shared their growing tobacco interests. Ehrlich’s company was making pipes in his store which were being sold around the world. He brought artisans from Germany and Austria who were highly skilled in this art. Leavitt &. Peirce bought Ehrlich’s pipes and sold them under their own name. Those which were broken and brought to their store to be mended were sent to Ehrlich’s. Cake Box in turn was sold in Boston. When the Rendez-Vous Club was launched, Ehrhch helped his friends finance it.

 

Above all, the three gentlemen were sports fans. Ehrlich not only attended the prize fights in the Boston Garden, but Leavitt Sc Peirce and later Frank Knapp supplied him with tickets in choice locations for the sports events in Cambridge. His interest in the latter became keener when three of his nephews, Richard Ehrhch, ’22, William Ehrlich, ’25, and Henry Ehrlich, ’34, attended the college.

 

In 1942 David Ehrlich died. His only son and heir had predeceased him. He willed his company to his nieces and nephews, three of whom were Harvard sons. Under them the David P. Ehrlich Company continued without any lowering of its high standard and renown among tobacco connoisseurs at home and abroad. It maintained its tie with Leavitt &. Peirce as it always had been.

 

In 1956 Miss Ferry received offers to sell her inheritance. She turned them down, as she did not want the business to become just another tobacco store. She had decided who should be the ones to relieve her of her great responsibility. She asked the Ehrlich heirs to buy Leavitt &. Peirce. They were as surprised by this request as they had been with their inheritance in 1942. They, especially the Harvard nephews, immediately saw the importance as well as the challenge of preserving “this college within a college, in Harvard Square.” The answer was yes and period three began.

 

Frank Doody was brought from the Boston store to Cambridge to be the new manager. He and David Fiorelh, the manager of Ehrlich’s in Boston, were to work closely with the heirs in guiding Leavitt &Peirce into its new era. Changes had to be made, but the Ehrlichs wanted these to be as little of a shock as possible to those who had known and loved the store over the years. The beginnings of a Harvard museum were there. This could be extended with more pictures of Harvard’s good old days added to the walls. If the pool tables and now the snack bar could not be there, at least photos of them could, along with souvenirs of dramatics when men took the women’s parts. Grads could identify classmates not only in sports costumes but in elaborate dresses with wigs and artificial busts.

 

The balcony above the old snack bar, no longer needed as an access to the billiard room, became a Harvard rogues’ gallery as “The Belles of Bellesley” (1899) and “The Secret of the Nile” (1898), along with old tuition bills ($18.25 a term), team tickets, and other Harvard memorabilia appeared. Undergraduates could quickly get a feel for the history of their alma mater, as they scanned the walls while buying their tobacco.

 

The heirs kept the store a center of information for Harvard athletics. The salesmen would be ready to answer requests regarding games. Tickets could be purchased too. The eastern front window would be available for notices. To this day the crew post their practice schedule there just as they always have.

 

Instead of the stand in the Yard at Commencement time, the Ehrlichs decided to supply all the class dinners with match folders with reunion numerals on front and back. The fact that these were with the compliments of Leavitt & Peirce was discreetly marked behind the matches.

 

Mr. Doody annually contacts all the reunion chairmen and finds out where the respective class dinners are being held and the number of people expected. The match folders are at the designated location at the proper hour. Moreover the twenty-fifth reunion class as well as the fiftieth receive free cigars along with the matches. Over five hundred cigars and a case of matches containing 2500 folders are delivered at the twenty-fifth reunion class dinner alone.

 

The Ehrlichs added another new dimension to the June festivities. They decided to make the fiftieth class their special pet. Thanks to modern medicine more and more men were living to enjoy this event. The Harvard nephews felt that a display of the accomplishments of this distinguished group should be made. The twenty-fifth had theirs in Widener. Now the east window of Leavitt & Peirce carries one for the fiftieth class each June and free cigars and matches are dispensed at every gathering of this group throughout their reunion. People look forward to this display, and have been known to drop in the store well before commencement to make sure that it will be there.

 

In the rear of the store, where the pool tables used to be, the Ehrlichs have built a humidor room. To enter it for the first time transfixes one. No delectable aroma like it exists or could exist anywhere else. On one wall of this tobacco paradise, cages have been constructed for each of Harvard’s clubs. Their particular brands of cigars are stored there and removed for special occasions. Lockers are provided for a few distinguished customers of long standing, one being David McCord, ’21.

 

In 1958, two years after the purchase, Leavitt & Peirce celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. The Ehrlichs invited Harvard men to honor this by sharing their memories of the store with the new owners. Eminent men from the classes of ’87 to ’58, from Mark De Wolfe Howe to Jonathan Kozol, responded and their records along with photos of Harvard personalities and activities over these years were published in a booklet and distributed widely. David McCord helped in the editing of this and gave it the title 75 Aromatic Years of Leavitt & Peirce in the Recollection of 31 Harvard Men.

 

To honor the memory of the founders, the Ehrlichs have added seven tobacco mixtures which Mr. Leavitt and Mr. Peirce used to make from canisters in their store. They are sold along with the David P. Ehrlich mixtures in both stores and are listed in the catalogue under the heading “Leavitt & Peirce Imported Tobaccos.” One called Cambridge Mixture includes tobaccos from Macedonia, Virginia, and Carolina, all flue-cured.

 

With the extra dimensions of the past securely preserved in the store in ways fitting to the demands of the present, the Ehrlichs gradually began to add their own dimension. Richard Ehrlich, ’22 and William Ehrlich ,’25 have been largely responsible for this. It began to come into focus right after the purchase when a few cases were placed in the middle of the store where unusual pipes and objects pertaining to the art of smoking were displayed.

 

It is no wonder that the Ehrlichs moved in this direction, as from their uncle they not only inherited the realization that a pipe store is “dedicated to the art of smoking and to the premise that the smoking of tobacco is an exquisite pleasure,” but David Ehrlich left them a large case in his Boston store filled with over 300 carved meerschaum pipes, one of the finest collections of its type in the world. Most of these were created in his store. Today one of the artisans who made them is celebrating his fiftieth anniversary with David P. Ehrlich Company and working, as he always has, in a front window where passers-by may stop to watch him — an Old World touch in the New World as well as a choice bit of old Boston in the new Boston.

 

In a short time a museum within a museum has appeared in Leavitt & Peirce. Richard Ehrlich in his travels and through contact with collectors at home and abroad has amassed a unique collection of its kind of the paraphernalia of smokers’ requisites which covers the history of tobacco and the art pertaining to it.

 

In 1964 large cases were built and placed to give the sense of a space apart from the store itself. There people may browse, marvel at and enjoy the wide variety of fascinating and beautiful objects in these cases which have been created by artisans of other eras. Dutch Delft tobacco jars, snuff graters and French snuffboxes, engraved tobacco boxes, Staffordshire puzzle pipes along with a wide assortment of other pipes and tobacco tampers are only a few of the treasures now housed at Leavitt &. Peirce.

 

Cartoons pertaining to smokers have been added to the walls. A fine example of the symbol associated with old cigar stores in this country in the nineteenth century, the wooden Indian, stands at the foot of the stairs leading to the balcony. David McCord discovered this in an antique store and told Richard Ehrlich about it. The purchase was quickly made and David McCord named the figure Whatcheamo meaning “what cheer.” It originated in Newport. A smaller Indian hangs over the entrance on Massachusetts Avenue, which lends a special artistic touch to this busy street.

 

The collection is becoming increasingly known and Richard Ehrlich has been requested to send some of the objects to be displayed elsewhere. Whatcheamo has traveled to Philadelphia, while other treasures have appeared in a recent exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Last January Wendell D. Garrett, a member of this Society, published an article on the collection in Antiques.

 

Richard Ehrlich’s collector’s zeal is resulting in the addition of rare books on the history of tobacco and its pleasures. The shelves behind the manager’s desk are filling up with these. After World War II the store began to sell chess sets. A graduate student who had acquired a valuable one in Europe when he was a soldier there, asked the manager if the store would be interested in selling it. This led collector Ehrlich to add another item on his list. Today Leavitt & Peirce has a valuable collection of antique chess sets from England, France, Italy, India, China, and Macao, and the store is known as a place where these may be purchased along with new ones.

 

Since the 1950s, families, especially graduates with their wives and children, come together to make purchases particularly over the weekend. Every youngster is given a miniature corncob pipe as a souvenir, and invariably he or she is shown the museum. The store is respected and appreciated by all who use it including the Square’s newest element, the hippies. “We have no trouble with them,” remarked the manager, “they like the tradition of the place. Why, I can’t change a thing around here, but someone notices it and complains.”

 

It has been this way for eighty-five years at Leavitt &. Peirce, the oldest store in its original location in Harvard Square. Like Harvard it has changed and yet not changed. It has continued to fulfill the admonition and prophecy at the close of Mark De Wolfe Howe’s poem which opened this paper:

O little ancient shop and college

Still teach your priceless brand of knowledge,

Proving all minor ills surmountable

Teach on through years and years uncountable​.

 

Read October 22, 1968

 

This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 41, from the years 1967-69.