Research Aids: Using our Library and Archival Collections
The Historical Commission's library and archive are open to the public for research on Mondays from 2:00 - 7:00 PM, Tuesdays from 2:00 - 4:00 PM, Wednesday - Thursday from 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM and 2:00 - 4:00 PM. The office is not open for research on Fridays. We strongly recommend that you call ahead to set up an appointment, as our research space and staff are limited. Please call (617)349-4683 or TTY(617)349-6112 to schedule a research appointment.
The archive is founded on an inventory that contains survey forms, photographs, and documentation on all 13,000± buildings in the City. Collections include both historic and contemporary materials, such as atlases, papers and manuscripts, books, and ephemera. The photograph collection is estimated to contain more than 60,000 images in all forms. These unique resources are used daily by staff, residents, researchers, and building professionals.
Do you have a question about one of the following topics? Follow the link below to go directly to that section of the page or use the scroll bar to browse the entire page.
The Historical Commission office is probably the best place to start your research. Materials available for consultation include photographs, newspaper articles, city directories and atlases as well as some deed, tax, and building permit records, as well (see complete list of available resources below). The Commission also has on architectural inventory survey forms for each building in the City, containing the date of construction, building materials, architectural style, and a photograph. In addition, the Commission's books on the City's different neighborhoods can be consulted in the office. After you have completed your research there, the Commission staff may be able to refer you to other helpful sources such as the Middlesex County Registry of Deeds, the Cambridge Historical Society, the State Archives, or local libraries.
Please call to arrange an appointment before you come, as space for researchers in our office is limited.
Rules for Use of the Cambridge Historical Commission Archive
Many of the materials in the archive are rare or unique, and often fragile and at risk for damage. Guidelines for the use of the materials have been drafted with the physical safety of the collection in mind. We depend upon our researchers to help us maintain the collection by following the guidelines for handling materials.
- The archive is open to the public Mondays from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., Tuesdays through Thursdays, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. The collection is closed on Fridays.
- No food or beverages may be brought into the research area.
- Check all coats, packages, briefcases, book bags, oversized handbags, and personal books in the office closet.
- Only pencils may be used in the research area. No ink, please.
- Books, files, maps, and other materials will be brought to researchers. All records must be used in the office research area.
- Materials in the files must be kept in order within the folder. Do not remove items from the file folder. Items may be turned sideways to indicate selections for photocopying.
- Turn pages carefully. Handle items with care.
- Photocopies are 20 cents per page. There is a limit of 25 photocopies per day. For greater quantities, we will make every attempt to have the copies ready by noon the following day.
- Items should remain flat on the table while being viewed. Do not lean on the research materials or stack other items on top of them.
- Items should remain within their protective sleeves. Patrons wishing to view items outside of their enclosures should ask staff for assistance.
- Photocopying is subject to restrictions based on size and physical condition of the item. Photocopies are 20 cents per side/page. Photographs with information on the reverse will be copied on both sides. This is office policy and helps to identify the photograph later. If a large number of photocopies are requested, the staff may ask you to return on a later day to pick them up. Photocopying will be completed based upon staff availability. Payment must be made in advance for large copy orders.
While Commission staff will assist researchers in any way possible, we do not have the resources to conduct extensive research for patrons.
All the following publications, including those out of print, are available for reference at our office and at public and school libraries. Some are available for purchase. See order form.
- Charles M. Sullivan and Susan E. Maycock. Building Old Cambridge. Extensively illustrated with many historic photos never published before, Building Old Cambridge is a comprehensive exploration of the city’s history and architecture and will be a standard reference for years to come.
- Cambridge Historical Commission. We are the Port: Stories of Place, Perseverance, and Pride in the Port/Area 4 Cambridge, Massachusetts 1845-2005. The most recent oral history publication by editor Sarah Boyer, this book is based on the stories told by over 125 residents of this diverse neighborhood of Cambridge.
- Cambridge Historical Commission. All in the Same Boat: Twentieth-Century Stories of East Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts. All in the Same Boat is a collection of more than 125 oral histories that explore the tightly knit neighborhood of East Cambridge from the perspective of its residents. ($22.00, for sale at the Commission and local bookstores)
- Cambridge Historical Commission. Crossroads: Stories of Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1912-2000. Second in the series of three Cambridge oral history books. Sarah Boyer conducted over 100 interviews which, together with more than 200 historic and family photographs, provide a much-needed historical record and richly detailed look at an area once considered Cambridge's true downtown. (Out of Print)
- Cambridge Historical Commission. Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge. Published in 5 volumes: Cambridgeport (available for $17.95), East Cambridge (Out of Print), Mid Cambridge (Out of Print), Northwest Cambridge (Out of Print), and Old Cambridge (Out of Print--see Building Old Cambridge above). This series includes detailed information on the architectural history and development of Cambridge neighborhoods. East Cambridge and Northwest Cambridge also contain material on social history; for example, Irish immigration is discussed in East Cambridge; Northwest Cambridge examines brick-making.
- Cambridge Historical Commission. A Photographic History of Cambridge. A collection of historical photographs, with explanatory text, many of which were donated by Cambridge families. (Out of Print).
- In Our Own Words: Stories of North Cambridge, 1900 – 1960, as told to Sarah Boyer. The book celebrates the lives of the late U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O’Neill and his friends and neighbors in their North Cambridge neighborhood. It is richly illustrated with over 150 photographs from North Cambridge families and historical images from the Commission and other historical organizations. (Out of Print)
- Charles Sullivan, Eileen Woodford and the Staff of the Cambridge Historical Commission. Maintaining Your Old House in Cambridge. An invaluable illustrated guide for owners or tenants who live in a Cambridge house built before 1930. The book offers straightforward, practical advice on repairing and maintaining the home without sacrificing its stylistic integrity. ($8.00, for sale at the Commission).
- Cambridge Historical Commission. Cambridge City Hall, 1890 - 1990. A brief illustrated history of Cambridge City Hall and noted benefactor Frederick Law Rindge. (Out of Print).
- Cambridge Historical Commission. Painting Historic Exteriors: Colors, Application, and Regulation. Guide written to help homeowners and those who work in historic preservation achieve appropriate exterior paint color schemes for buildings of different periods and styles. Painting Historic Exteriors contains 80 pages with illustrations and tables and comes shrink-wrapped and 3-hole punched ready to be inserted in a binder. ($8.00, for sale at the Commission).
Maps/Atlases and Views
- 1830 Hales’ Plan of Cambridge - shows buildings, topographical features. May be photocopied; 8x10 prints are available.
- 1833 Wadsworth's Plan of the Village of Old Cambridge. This map can also be viewed online at Harvard's website.
- 1854 Walling Map of Cambridge - shows buildings, property lines, topographical features. Original in color. May be photocopied or full-size, blue-line prints may be purchased for $5.00. This map can also be viewed online at Harvard's website.
- 1873 Hopkins Atlas - shows buildings, building material, ownership, property lines. Original in color. This atlas may not be photocopied due to its size, age and fragility. This atlas can also be viewed online at Harvard's website or wardmaps.com.
- 1877 Franklin View Co.'s bird's eye view of Cambridge. This view can also be viewed online at Boston Public Library's website.
- 1879 Bailey & Hazen's bird's eye view of East Cambridge. This view can also be viewed online at Boston Public Library's website.
- (Note: the 1885/88 Sanborn Atlas of Boston/Cambridge, which is not in our collection, can be viewed online at the Harvard Map Collection).
- 1886 Hopkins Atlas - shows buildings, building material, ownership, property lines. Original in color. This atlas may not be photocopied due to its size, age and fragility. This atlas can also be viewed online at Harvard's website.
- 1894, 1903, 1916, 1930 Bromley atlases - show buildings, building material, ownership, property lines. Original are in color. These atlases may not be photocopied due to their size, age and fragility. These atlases can be viewed online via wardmaps.com or on Harvard's website, 1894, 1903, 1916 and 1930.
- 1900 Sanborn Atlas, updated to 1933 - shows buildings, building material, ownership (of some properties), property lines, use, hazardous structures or manufacturing materials. Original in two volumes and in color. This atlas may not be photocopied due to its size and fragility. The atlas may be protected by copyright laws and regulations for The Sanborn Map Company, (914) 738-1649.
The 1900 base map of this atlas, without the pasted on updates, can be viewed online at Harvard's website.
- 1934 Sanborn Atlas, updated to approx. 1960 - shows buildings, building material, ownership (of some properties), property lines, use, hazardous structures or manufacturing materials. Original in color. This atlas may not be photocopied due to its size and fragility. The atlas is protected by copyright laws and regulations for The Sanborn Map Company, (914) 738-1649.
- 1962, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1982, 1983, 1996, 1997 Sanborn Atlases - shows buildings, building material, ownership (of some properties), property lines, use, hazardous structures or manufacturing materials. Originals are in black and white. These atlases may be photocopied for research purposes only. The atlases are protected by copyright laws and regulations for The Sanborn Map Company, (914) 738-1649.
- Cambridge Building Department, Building Permits, 1886-1937. Index is arranged by owner's last name.
- Cambridge City Directories, 1848-1874 and scattered later years. - Alphabetical listing of Cambridge residents; entries include name (for a couple, wife’s name included in later years; other individuals in family listed separately after approx. age 18); profession/job; place/address of business/work; home address. After c.1905, reverse directories (listings by address) are provided. Also include business listings and advertisements. Select volumes of the Cambridge Directories can be viewed online via ancestry.com.
- Cambridge City Engineer, House Books, 1875-1932 - Surveyed, measured foundation plans
- Cambridge Historical Commission architectural inventory - Includes a photograph, date, and architectural evaluation of all 13,000 Cambridge structures. Files also may include historical photographs, newspaper articles, deed research, building permit information, and biographical information on past and/or present owners.
- Cambridge Historical Commission photo collections - The Commission collects and copies photographs for its collections. The collection currently includes and estimated 26,000 images, including extant Cambridge buildings. Also collections of street scenes, subway construction, industrial complexes, and right of way valuations. N.B. The majority of photos are arranged by address, not subject.
Collection Highlight: Boston Elevated Railway (BERy) photo collection. The Commission holds approximately 1,000 glass negatives taken by the Boston Elevated Railway between 1899 and 1912. While these primarily document the construction of the Cambridge Subway in 1909-1912, others depict the residences of the company's president, Gen. William A. Bancroft, on Putnam Avenue and Ware Street (1900); conversion of the New England Glass Company's factory on the Miller's River in East Cambridge into a power station (1902); and construction of the East Cambridge viaduct in 1907-1912. Related holdings include about 200 cyanotypes made from negatives not in the CHC collection and about 3,000 film negatives, some not yet catalogued, depicting subway and surface operations in Cambridge taken by the BERy, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority from 1935-1970.
- National Register of Historic Places inventory forms for Cambridge properties - Useful, basic information on buildings or groups of buildings on the Register.
- Miscellaneous Cambridge Municipal Publications
If you are a professional researching a property for an environmental site assessment report, we can help. We have a large number of resources available all in one location for researching Cambridge properties. The staff is available, by appointment, to assist you in a thorough investigation of a property. We charge a $50 fee to cover the staff time it takes to retrieve and put away all the necessary files, atlases, photographs, drawings, etc. and to assist you in answering any questions about the property's history.
Please call to make an appointment: Phone 617/ 349-4683 or TTY 617/349-6112.
Interested in your genealogy? Looking for information on family members who used to live in Cambridge? Although the emphasis of the CHC's archival collections is on the architecture of the city, we do have several important resources to check if you are in town doing family history research. Please note that we do not have genealogical researchers available for hire.
- City directories (The directories are organized by name, with street address cross index after 1905; Entries may include occupation, home and work addresses, and may show other family members living in the same household.) Select volumes of Cambridge directories are available online via ancestry.com.
- Atlases (If you know your family’s street or neighborhood, the atlases can tell you more about the area, including ownership, building materials, and lot sizes.) See list of maps and atlases in our collection by scrolling up on this page.
- Indexed Cambridge vital records, up to 1850 An online version is available here. You may also visit the City Clerk’s office to look up later vital records or submit inquiries by mail; see web link below. Also try the online vital records 1814-1915 database at the Massachusetts State Archives..
- Lucius Paige's History of Cambridge and index to same by Mary Gozzaldi (Cambridge’s first City Clerk, Paige’s history is detailed and thorough and includes a genealogical register.)
- Limited biographical files and indices
- Cemetery Contacts
- Cambridge Cemetery, opened 1853, 617-349-4890
- Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of Boston's Genealogy and Cemetery Locations, 781-322-6300
- North Cambridge Cemetery on Rindge Avenue, Cambridge, opened 1846
- Sand Banks Cemetery (aka Mt. Auburn Catholic or Cottage Street cemetery), on Cottage St., Watertown, Searchable Database
- Mount Auburn Cemetery, opened 1831, 617-547-7105
- Old Burying Ground, contact the Historical Commission for info 617-349-4683 or download map and index below.
- Cambridgeport Burial Ground, opened 1812, closed 1865. When this cemetery on Broadway in Cambridgeport was closed in 1865, existing burials were relocated to the new Cambridge Cemetery or another cemetery selected by the family of the deceased. The former burial ground was then re-purposed as a public park and called Broadway Common/Broadway Park and later renamed Edward J. Sennott Park.
City of Cambridge Veterans' Grave Registration Cards – for various cemeteries in Cambridge. This new collection is organized alphabetically and provide name, date and cause of death, location of burial, service info, etc. Available by appointment.
- Architectural survey forms – Survey files are organized by street address; Files may contain other materials such as newspaper articles and photographs, in addition to the survey form.)
In addition to the books published by the Commission, which are listed above, we have found these books to be helpful and interesting.
Harris, John. The Boston Globe Historic Walks in Cambridge. Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1986.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936, 1964. Available online.
- Paige, Lucius. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1877.
A reliable, detailed history of Cambridge from settlement to 1877. Available online.
- Rand, Christopher. Cambridge, U.S.A.: Hub of a New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
- Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: Three and a Half Centuries on the Charles. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976. A popular history of the city published for the bicentennial.
For specific questions about the Commission's archival collections, digitization plans, or library contents, please contact Emily Gonzalez, CHC Archivist.