Cake Box Tobacco

The Boston Globe
July 23, 2000, Sunday ,THIRD EDITION

LENGTH: 630 words

HEADLINE: CITY WEEKLY Not all goes up in smoke, here smoke appears/To give stability in changing years./Are meerschaum pipes and briars still a fixture/In the front window, flanked by Cake Box Mixture?;


CAMBRIDGE – Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Hillyer, Harvard ’17, wrote those words 42 years ago on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Leavitt & Peirce tobacconists in Harvard Square. For generations of Harvard’s sons and daughters, the venerable tobacco shop redolent of Latakia and Judge’s Blend and hung with aged oars and footballs recalling Crimson sporting triumphs of 1908, has been an aromatic bastion of tradition in the ever-changing square.

Synonymous with Leavitt & Peirce has been Famous Cake Box Mixture, the shop’s signature pipe-tobacco blend, touted as “known to Harvard men throughout the world.” So when the Cake Box jar ran empty at Leavitt & Peirce last month, and it was announced the blend was out of stock, it appeared another Harvard Square institution had followed the Tasty Diner, the Wursthaus, the Bow & Arrow Pub, the Briggs & Briggs music shop and Sage’s Market into oblivion. Cake Box loyalists, take heart, says Leavitt & Peirce’s manager, Paul J. Macdonald. The blend has been unavailable this summer since a supplier stopped marketing the particular Virginia-leaf ingredients used in its making, Macdonald said. The shop, however, hopes to strike a deal with a new supplier in North Carolina that will result in a restored Cake Box.

Macdonald aims to have it back in stock by the start of fall semester, in time for the annual arrival of Harvard underclassmen following the smoky contrails of fathers and grandfathers before them.

“There will be a handful of freshmen, probably with bow ties on, who come in for their first pipe,” he said, acknowledging: “Some of them turn green.”

Times have changed in Harvard Square since Leavitt & Peirce opened 117 years ago. Last weekend, a pair of sunglasses had been deposited by a prankster on the nose of the vintage cigar-clutching Indian princess atop the store’s entrance. And an era came to an end this year when the Harvard crew stopped posting its practice-time notices in the shop’s window.

“Everyone has e-mail,” Macdonald said, with a shrug.

But tradition dies hard at Leavitt & Peirce, where Harvard’s exclusive “final” clubs maintain private humidors, and you can still buy mustache wax, hip flasks, and snuff of the sniffing variety.

“We are a throwback,” said Macdonald. “People look at us and say, ‘This is the old Square.’ ”

At the heart of that legacy is Famous Cake Box Mixture, which once was shipped across the globe and accounted for half the shop’s business. Today, with pipes out of vogue, the mixture amounts to only a small fraction of sales at the shop, and most who buy it are older customers.

“It’s the tradition we want to maintain,” said Macdonald.

“When people thought Leavitt & Peirce, they thought Cake Box. You had a stein of Bavarian Dark at the Wursthaus, a Reuben at Elsie’s, and a bowlful of Cake Box at Leavitt & Peirce. We hope the bowlful of Cake Box won’t go the way of the others. We’re not giving up.”

Cake Box’s mixture of Virginia and Black Base tobaccos is described by Macdonald as something of an acquired taste, “fragrant, but not sweet, with a combination of nutty and smoky overtones,” but tending to be a bit rough for the fledgling smoker. He predicted the price of $1.65 an ounce, enough for four or five bowls, may rise as high as $2.50 an ounce for a newly constituted blend from the new supplier.

“We’ll keep it going, even if it doesn’t sell,” said Macdonald, whose family owns the David P. Ehrlich Store on Tremont Street in downtown Boston as well as Leavitt & Peirce. “I owe it to Cake Box. It’s like the dodo bird. It’s too easy to have things just vanish. Some of the animals that went extinct were not the most beautiful or the most graceful. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important.”

Image: Felix42 contra la censura

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