Live Poultry Fresh Killed: A sign of Cambridge history that should be branded, not sold

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

The Mayflower Poultry store closes after 89 years in business and moves to Boston to open as an online business. The company’s “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign goes up for auction on Thursday.

This 6-foot-tall sign, which was tabled in 2005, is a major Cambridge tourist attraction, generating such interest that the 621 Cambridge Street the store used it to sell merchandise such as T-shirts, hats and butcher blocks. In short, the sign is a landmark of East Cambridge, evoking the long history of the neighborhood and Cambridge in general and appearing prominently in national sites such as Bark, where Kathy K. wrote: “When I first moved to the Cambridge area years ago, I was once very lost on Cambridge Street… outside the Mayflower Poultry Co. Who knew I would be one day neighbor and fan of the place.

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

The petition has been submitted to the Cambridge Historical Commission, which will decide whether a monument is worth investigating. If members vote to go ahead, staff will spend up to a year considering whether the request is valid. This will then be up to the committee, which will take another vote on whether to propose a mooring of the sign, deciding what conditions may be decisive for the further use of the sign if it is primed. For example: should it stay in the same building or could it be moved? Finally, the city council votes.

Cambridge residents across the city (and beyond) will have ample time to speak out. This petition launches a process so that we can begin to think about these issues.

The council established this process in 1983 to preserve and conserve buildings and sites significant in Cambridge history. Conservatives now recognize the importance of saving parts of history that include the legacy of workers and emigrants in visual markers such as the now iconic Shell and EMF signs.

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

As the region is teeming with life sciences, pharmaceuticals and venture capital companies, “some of the most popular places are disappearing,” the article said. “But there are still a lot of iconic places that work well, ranging from fish markets and bakeries to Mayflower Poultry, with its ‘Live Poultry Fresh Killed’ sign drawing attention to center stage.”

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

In the first half of the 20th century, immigrant families from Italy, Portugal, Poland and others bought their chicken, geese and fresh eggs from Mayflower. When one of the writers of this play 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 was taken out alive and held upside down by its legs so that she could inspect and smell it. The chicken chuckled and flapped its wings. If she liked it, the chicken would be brought to an area at the back, cut up and wrapped in foil ready to bake for dinner. No preservatives needed and fresh as possible.

Too much of this town’s history is lost or forgotten, Kristina Kehrer wrote in 2016, and some “worried that Cambridge was losing that blue collar advantage because blue collar workers are where you get your grain. It might not always be pretty, but it is certainly difficult with a dynamic mind and indispensable in the crucial moments. I am also concerned that Cambridge is losing its “advantage” in general. An advantage created by the colorful, creative types who live lives outside the parameters of a shiny new Cambridge built on “bio-this”, “techy-that” and copious hipster endeavors. “

The Cambridge East Conservation District Study Committee is considering whether to create a conservation district in this important part of town. The Mayflower sign is one of a number of properties important to Cambridge and in particular for its economic and labor history, as well as for its artistic dynamism.

The unique black lettering “LIVE POULTRY Fresh KILLED” on a white background, with its italic and scripted font “Fresh” and the bold letters “KILLED” superimposed on an orange-yellow chicken image, displays the kind of eclectic and resonant mix of elements consistent with the community of former factory workers. It dates back to when Cambridge was specializing in blue collar industries that supported the working class.

Protecting the ‘Live Poultry, Fresh Killed’ sign with local landmark status will maintain its unique qualities for the benefit of all Cambridges. An official designation “would promote appropriate use and wider public awareness” of its distinctive features and significance, in the parlance of historic monument commissions.

With interim protections from the East Cambridge Conservation District Study ending September 2, presentation is the only way to protect this historic sign. The petition to preserve the Mayflower sign and East Cambridge’s efforts to create a conservation district to help safeguard some of the architectural heritage of this important part of town and its past as an immigrant and d factory is available on bit.ly/LivePoultrySign.

This effort is supported by a number of East Cambridge residents and conservation advocates across the city, as well as the Cambridge Citizens Coalition, a city-wide political group founded in 2019 by various leaders of neighborhood groups interested in the future of our city.


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

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