Cambridge Cake Box

Circling the Square

Like its Cake Box tobacco, over the years Leavitt and Peirce has retained a flavor all its own. Founded in 1884 to serve the Harvard man, it immediately attained primacy as an exclusive gathering place for upperclassmen. Around its pot-belly stove pipe smokers gathered to experiment with tobacco mixtures and help the proprietors perfect the Cake Box brand that brought them fame. Today, Leavitt's struggles to maintain its old intimate atmosphere. In a world of Shultes and Hav-a-Tampas, it still conceives of itself as a gentleman's smoke shop.

Two customs of the nineteenth century have survived: an open tobacco tin and an upstairs "lounge." At Leavitt's these are revered traditions, to be distinguished from its more modern day practices of posting University athletic notices and supplying free train schedules for over fifty railroads.

When Frederick Leavitt and Wallace Peirce opened their shop at what is now 1316 Massachusetts Avenue, they left an open tin of tobacco scraps on the counter beside the stove. Up the street, where Bob Slate's Stationery Store now stands, they operated a smaller shop under similar arrangements for freshmen. The proprietors tried different mixtures until they found one undergraduates particularly enjoyed. This was packed up in cake box tins for Leavitt and Peirce customers to take home. Later it was shipped to graduates, who passed it among their friends, establishing the brand abroad. Soon Leavitt's found itself in the wholesale business, manufacturing Cake Box tobacco, cigars, and cigarettes. Today, the flourishing wholesale business guarantees the tobacco shop's solvency. Out of gratitude Leavitt's has kept an open tin of tobacco on its counter.

As for the "lounge," most customers probably do not know it exists. Beyond the lunch counter a dirty red sign hangs, pointing toward Leavitt's pool room. Upstairs past the last collection of baseball bats in Cambridge and the broken crew oars, one finds a musty room, littered with empty cardboard boxes. There under shaded lamps stand the pool tables. One is covered with cartons, but the other seven are ready for use. The cues wait covered with dust in the racks, and red stiff-backed stools line the far wall.

When the era of the automobile dawned in the mid-1920's Leavitt's club house atmosphere collapsed. By then Leavitt and Peirce had both died, within six months of each other in 1919, and two employees at the H.A.A., Frank Knapp and Fred Moore, bought the business. These two gentlemen saw the shop through its transitional period. They took down the great green curtain that closed off the rear of the shop and turned Leavitt's "house Man" into a counterman. The lunch counter was moved upstairs and the freshman smoker was closed. It was they who instituted the practice of posting athletic notices in Leavitt's window.

Knapp and Moore retained the open cake box, the forgotten pool room, and the traditional habit of handing out cigars at Commencement. And they established the shop among the elite smokers by importing their own Algerian briar pipes and stocking their shelves with ninety cigarette brands.

Leavitt and Peirce's two present employees, who have been at 1316 Massachusetts Avenue for 20 and 26 years, can recall when President Lowell dropped into the shop three times a week with his cocker spaniel, and when President Conant used to send his secretary down to buy Benson and Hedges cigars. The firm has not seen nor heard from President Pusey. But this is easily explained by the counterman.

"If he has not been in, he must not smoke."