Free Workshop Series: Researching the History of Your House with the City of Cambridge


Close-up of architectural inventory form for an address on Hampshire Street, CHC

Join staff members from the Cambridge Historical Commission, the City of Cambridge Department of Public Works and the Cambridge Room at the Cambridge Public Library for a three-week series on researching the history of your house or building.

Registration is mandatory, though you do not have to attend all three sessions (though we highly recommend it!). For your convenience, each department will offer two days of the same session – one in the evening and one in the afternoon.

To register, please check out the schedule below and contact the person listed. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Session 1: The Cambridge Room at the Cambridge Public Library
This hour-long, hands-on workshop will guide you through a variety of online resources that will help you research your home from the comfort of your home. Discover when your building was built and by who.  Find out who lived in your house and how your neighborhood has changed.  We will provide laptops. Registration is mandatory.

Monday, October 16
6:00 – 7:00 PM
Location: Community Room, Cambridge Public Library

Max. 16 participants


Wednesday, October 18
3:00 – 4:00 PM
Location: Beech Room, Cambridge Public Library

Max. 13 participants

Led by Alyssa Pacy, Archivist at the Cambridge Public Library.  To register, email: or call 617-349-7757

Session 2: Cambridge Historical Commission
The Commission’s research collection is founded on an architectural inventory that contains survey forms, photographs, and documentation on all 13,000+ buildings in the City. Participants will learn how individual homes can be researched using these inventory files, as well as the Commission’s collection of city directories, atlases, maps, photographs, books on the City’s different neighborhoods, and some deed, tax, and building permit records.

Monday, October 23

6:00 – 7:00 PM

Location: Cambridge Historical Commission, 831 Massachusetts Avenue, 2nd floor

Max. 12 participants


Wednesday, October 25

2:00 – 3:00 PM

Location: Cambridge Historical Commission, 831 Massachusetts Avenue, 2nd floor

Max. 12 participants

Led by Cambridge Historical Commission staff.  To register, email: or call: 617-349-4070

Session 3: Cambridge Department of Public Works
The public works collection is primarily focused on sewer & drain utility drawings and plans showing the boundaries of the public rights of way. But many of these and other records, which go as far back as 1840, also include interesting historical facts such as previous building, street, and water body configurations as well as ancient industries, property owner names and assessment values. Participants will learn how individual locations can be researched with geographic, database, and online indexes and they’ll see how those indexes have evolved.

Monday, October 30
6:00 – 7:00  PM

Location: Department of Public Works, 147 Hampshire Street

Max. 12 participants


Wednesday, November 1
2:00 – 3:00 PM

Location: Department of Public Works, 147 Hampshire Street

Max. 12 participants

Led by George Stylianopoulos, City of Cambridge Department of Public Works.  To register, email:

General questions about the series? Call 617-349-4683.


This weekend! Cambridge Discovery Day

Don’t miss this year’s Cambridge Discovery Day — tomorrow, Saturday, September 16!

Discover Cambridge during a day of free tours and events celebrating the city’s history. Enjoy special tours by the Rangers at Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site and the Fresh Pond Reservation, experience the Revolution from a child’s perspective, and discover the secret history of Cambridge saloons and speakeasies. Explore James Russell Lowell’s Brattle Street, be inspired by stained glass windows at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, and delight in the architectural gems of Avon Hill.

View the complete schedule here.


Time Travel Tuesday: Stereographs

Welcome to the inaugural episode of Time Travel Tuesday! This series will focus on aspects of history illustrated by objects in our collections. In today’s post, we’ll be talking about stereographs.

Have you ever watched a movie in 3D or spent hours staring at a Magic Eye image hoping to see whatever was hidden in all the abstract colors? 3D imaging is somewhat of a novelty, even today, but the impulse to create two dimensional images that look 3D has been around a lot longer than you might think. In the early decades of the 19th century, inventors began devising ways to create the illusion of a three dimensional view, even before advances in photographic technology made it possible to quickly and inexpensively create direct representations of the world.

Early 3D photographs (and drawings) were called stereographs or stereograms. Stereoscopy, the technique used to create stereographs, works because our eyes see at slightly different angles from each other. When your eyes work together, in stereo, you perceive a three dimensional view of your surroundings. Close one eye and the world flattens. By placing a slightly different image to be viewed by each eye independent of the other, your mind is tricked into seeing a three dimensional scene.

The first stereoscope was invented by a man called Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. Wheatstone’s original apparatus employed a system of mirrors to reflect two slightly different images to the eyes. Six years later, David Brewster improved on Wheatstone’s design, doing away with the mirrors and instead using prisms in a closed case. Stereoscopy became all the rage in Victorian England. Even Queen Victoria was bitten by the stereo bug. The Great Exhibition of 1851 brought the stereoscope to an international audience and around 1860 Cambridge native Oliver Wendell Holmes invented his own version of the stereoscope.

The Holmes Stereopticon, also known as the American stereoscope, was incredibly popular. In the years following its invention, which Holmes declined to patent, thousands upon thousands of stereoscopic images, also known as stereographs, were produced for viewing through a stereoscope. They were cheap and readily available, making them a truly democratic amusement.

The CHC has a number of stereographs as part of the Postcards and Stereographs Collection, depicting historical monuments, notable residences, churches, Harvard University, and landscape views.


Washington’s Headquarters (Prof. Longfellow’s Residence), Cambridge. Not dated. Produced by American Stereoscopic Views.


The Washington Elm. “Under this tree Washington first took command of the American Army. July 3rd 1775.” Not dated. Produced by A.E. Alden, Boston.



Vicinity of Boston. Park and Garden Series. Not Dated. Produced by C. Seaver, Jr. Photographer. Labeled on reverse “Residence near Mt. Auburn.” This is the only color stereograph in our collection. See below for more information.

Updated: It was recently pointed out to us by an eagle-eyed commenter that the above image is, in fact, a house formerly in Roxbury. This house appears in a painting of Roxbury in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, below: 

Stereographs were mass produced as souvenirs. People visiting Cambridge could purchase these cards and bring them home with them to relive their trip. This is evidenced by the frequent inclusion of historical information on the back of the cards.


Elmwood, Birthplace of James Russell Lowell, Cambridge Mass. Not dated. Produced by Underwood & Underwood Publishers.


[Reverse] Elmwood, Birthplace of James Russell Lowell, Cambridge Mass. Not dated. Produced by Underwood & Underwood Publishers.

Especially interesting in this example is the inclusion of multiple languages at the bottom of the card. Visitors who spoke French, German, Spanish, Swedish, or Russian could read for themselves what was depicted in the stereograph.


Reverse of a stereograph card of Hollis Hall dormitories. Several cards with this historical description pasted to the back are present in our collection, and indication of just how common these types of cards were.

Other cards included a list of other available stereograph images. This card depicting a scene in Mount Auburn Cemetery is an example.


While difficult to make out, the design to either side included the description “Rural Cemeteries, United States.”  Based on information on the reverse, we know this is Mount Auburn Cemetery. Not dated. Publisher not specified.


Reverse of above. Someone, perhaps the original owner of this card, underlined “12. Lawn and Chapel” under Mount Auburn, Cambridge, indicating the subject of the photograph.

Unfortunately, many cards do not include any information at all to identify them. However, occasionally the original purchaser chose to identify the subject themselves, perhaps to help them remember their visit.


Memorial Hall, Harvard University. No identifying information is present on the front of this card.


Reverse of above. “Memorial Hall” “Harvard” Cambridge Mass. June 1874. A. F. F.

Interest in stereoscopy has continued to the present day. Tutorials on creating your own stereoscopic images are available online. So if you live in Cambridge and want to experience a little bit of time travel for yourself, give it a try and show us what you come up with!


Victoria and Albert Museum

American Antiquarian Society



The new Cambridge Archives site is live!

Cambridge is a city rich with so much history, so many museums, libraries, and schools, that it can be hard to know where exactly to go for specific historical materials. The new Cambridge Archives website aims to help researchers, history lovers and curious citizens figure out which Cambridge archive holds what kinds of materials.

The new Cambridge Archives site was created with the generosity of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati (Anderson House), and through a collaboration with the Cambridge Historical Society, the Cambridge Historical Commission and the Cambridge Room of the Cambridge Public Library.   Check it out, and watch for more updates over the next couple of months as we add more archives and collecting institutions to the site (add yours, too!).