WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: Cookies and Candy, Cambridge Massachusetts

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson


“The Cambridge [of Harvard] is famous…. But the story of Cambridge the Unknown City has seldom been told. Yet this is a very real Cambridge. A hundred and fifty thousand people throng its streets, stores and crowded subway stations. Five hundred distributing and manufacturing plants pour out a score of nationally known products … including candy. Call the roll of industries today and Kendall Square will answer:  machineries and foundries; glass, rubber, food and cracker factories.”

Massachusetts Guide p. 184, 191

 In Harvard Yard nothing much has changed since 1936. But Kendall Square has been totally transformed. In place of factories, there are labs. Kendall Square is now home to the world’s largest collection of biotech companies. Their gleaming glass headquarters crowd the space and butt right up against the MIT campus.

Until 1946, Kendall Square was the center of candy and cookie manufacturing in the United States. We made Tootsie Rolls, Sugar Daddys, Charleston Chews, Necco Wafers, Good and Plenty, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Fig Newtons, and countless other sweets. All production has now ceased except for Junior Mints which are still manufactured in Kendall Square. In fact, on summer nights, when the workers leave the back door open, the aroma of mint and dark chocolate wafts through the air, drawing kids and parents alike to beg for samples.

Cantabridgians love and honor history, especially when it comes in the form of beautiful old buildings. Several  of the candy factories have been repurposed and traces of their history remain. The Squirrel Nut Brands factory is now an apartment building but its delightful sign has been carefully preserved. The Necco factory complex remains, now housing biotech giant, Novartis, ironically the invenor of Ritalin. 

The Kennedy Bakery (later Nabisco) has been renovated into condos providing relief for the eyes in a neighborhood of glass and steel. Kennedy opened its factory in Kendall Square in 1845, and was the largest bakery in the country in the late 19th Century. The company was merged into Nabisco decades ago and moved out of state but the Kennedy Condominiums have not forgotten the company’s path-breaking industrial bakery. The brick gateposts at the main entrance are embedded with tiles in the shapes of Kennedy’s cookies and a Lorna Doone-shaped plaque indicates that the building was pre-eminent once in our nation’s culinary and industrial history.   

Many of Kennedy’s cookies are rare if not extinct now. You can still buy Arrowroots, Social Tea Bicuits, Lorna Doones on the internet but they don’t take up much space on the cookie shelves in local markets. In contrast, Kennedy’s Fig Newtons, first made in 1892, are still popular, at least here in Massachusetts. 


September  2021