Cambridge incorporated as a city in 1846, uniting three rival villages — Old Cambridge, Cambridgeport and East Cambridge.
Prior to that, Old Cambridge had grown slowly and still retained its charming rural character. Small shops catered to the community and to students. Drawn by Harvard, and later Radcliffe College, brilliant men and women imparted an intellectual luster to the village. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (founder of Radcliffe), William Dean Howells — all were seen on the streets of the village.
Before the opening of the West Boston (now Longfellow) Bridge in 1793, only three families lived east of Quincy Street. The bridge offered the first direct route from Cambridge to Boston and cut the distance between the two from eight to three miles. Cambridgeport grew up along the roads leading to the bridge. Pleasant residential neighborhoods spread out from Massachusetts Avenue, while Central Square became the city’s true downtown. Margaret Fuller, writer and editor — and the first woman allowed to use the Harvard library — grew up in Cambridgeport, as did Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a resident.
East Cambridge was opened for development in 1809, when the Canal Bridge, adjacent to the present Museum of Science, was completed. The area was the city’s major industrial center until the 1880s. Furniture and glass factories were among the industries attracted to East Cambridge by cheap land, water transportation, and close proximity to Boston. Andrew Craigie, a leading Cambridge speculator, lured the Middlesex County courthouse and jail to East Cambridge by offering to donate new buildings in 1813. In 1841, social activist Dorothea Dix was outraged by conditions in the jail and began her pioneering work in prison reform.
The devastating potato blight that struck Ireland in 1845 caused many of that country’s rural population to flee. Thousands landed in Boston and Cambridge now officially a city, were destitute and without resources. Many Irish immigrants worked in the clay pits and brickyards of North Cambridge, housed in crowded workers’ cottages. The majority of the city’s Irish lived in East Cambridge, laboring at unskilled jobs in the glass works and furniture factories. They developed a close-knit community, centered on and supported by the Catholic church. By 1855, twenty-two percent of the adults in East Cambridge were Irish-born.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Portugal began to arrive in the city, settling primarily in Cambridgeport and East Cambridge. French Canadians and Russian Jews came at this time, as well, settling in North Cambridge and Cambridgeport, respectively.
A small population of African Americans had lived in Cambridge from the earliest Colonial days, and in the early nineteenth century Cambridge’s integrated schools attracted many families from Boston. Harriet Jacobs, born a slave in North Carolina, ran a boarding house in Cambridge in the 1870s. She had lived in hiding for seven years before escaping to the North and later wrote an account of her years in bondage, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Educator Maria Baldwin, a native Cantabrigian, held home study classes for Harvard’s black students, including W.E.B. DuBois. In 1889, she was appointed headmaster of the Agassiz School, the first African American to hold such a position in the North. Twenty markers commemorating prominent Cambridge African Americans have been erected throughout the city.
Today, Cambridge is home to a culturally diverse population of over 95,000. Over fifty languages may be heard on the streets of the city, including Spanish, Creole, Portuguese, Chinese, Amharic, and Korean. Children from 82 different countries of origin attend the public schools. College students from around the world study at Harvard, Radcliffe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Lesley College. The heavy industries of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been replaced by technology-based enterprises, including electronics, self-developing film and cameras, software and biotechnology research.