Today is National Fig Newton Day!
In 1892, Philadelphia native and bakery machinery expert James Henry Mitchell patented a device that could simultaneously create a cookie dough and its filling–a small pie with jam or preserves surrounded by dough. Mitchell persuaded the Kennedy Biscuit Company of Cambridgeport to try his new machine and shipped one to Massachusetts. Soon, the company began mass-producing the fig cakes at their factory. The company dubbed this new concoction, then marketed as a nutritional cake, the Fig Newton–so named after the town of Newton, Massachusetts. Later, the Kennedy Biscuit Company and the New York Biscuit company merged to form Nabisco, which still manufactures the cookie as simply “Newtons.” Following Nabisco’s move to New Jersey, the plant was occupied by Fenton Shoe Company and was later purchased by MIT. Today, the building has been converted into mixed-income housing and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Bakery Oven
One of Frank Kennedy’s many innovations was the use of the reel oven. This type of oven allowed a continuous baking process which both increased production capacity and improved product quality. The original reel ovens were powered by a 50-horsepower steam engine. Located directly in front of you is one of the original six ovens with a new internal assembly suggestive of the very first reel oven.
The Bakery Buildings
In 1875, the first brick structure was erected on this site. Cambridgeport was experiencing rapid growth as it shifted its economic base from trade to heavy industry. Twelve separate additions were erected between 1875 and 1937, and the 250,000-square-foot complex employed up to 650 people.
Nabisco moved its operations to New Jersey, and the Fenton Shoe Company occupied the building from 1956 through 1986. The building was subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places and won the 1990 Preservation Award for its conversion from a factory to mixed-income housing.
The Biscuit Company
In 1805, the Kennedy family started in the bakery business. Forty years later, Artemas Kennedy moved the business from Milton, Massachusetts and built a wood frame building on the Cambridgeport site. Steam power was introduced to the production process in 1855. Artemis’s son, Frank A. Kennedy, took over the business shortly thereafter, and the bakery was renamed the “F.A. Kennedy Steam Cracker Bakery.”
In 1890, Frank Kennedy merged his bakery with the New York Biscuit Company, which later merged with the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco).
Frank Kennedy served on Nabisco’s Board of Trustees until his death.
The Bakery Products
The Kennedy Bakery product line consisted of three cracker types – soda, butter, and sugar – as well as several varieties of cakes and cookies. Familiar names include Lorna Doone, Arrowroot and Social Tea. Other Nabisco products include the still-popular Oreo cookie.
In 1892, a device that extruded dough into a continuous tubular shape was purchased by the company. After experimenting with various fillings for this cookie sandwich, Frank Kennedy finally selected a brand of his fig preserves. It had been the company’s custom to name its new products after local towns – Fig Cambridge and Fig Shrewsbury were considered as possibilities for this new invention. However, an employee who lived in nearby Newton suggested the name of his hometown instead. Thus, a famous snack was born, the “Fig Newton.”
Cahn, William. Out of the Cracker Barrel: The Nabisco Story, From Animal Crackers to Zuzus. Simon and Schuster, 1969.
Historical exhibit located in the lobby of the Kennedy Biscuit Lofts, 129 Franklin Street, Cambridge.