History of Peabody

History of Peabody

May 23, 2016

As many towns North of Boston start thinking about their 400th anniversary we have one town that just turned 100. Peabody, or known by some ‘The Leather City’, was incorporated as a city in 1916.

The area was first settled as a part of Salem in 1629 and in 1752, the area was removed from Salem and incorporated as a part of Danvers. It then broke away from Danvers to become South Danvers in 1855. The name was changed to Peabody on April 30, 1868 after George Peabody, a famous philanthropist. It would then be incorporated into a city in 1916.

Below is the brief History of Peabody written by the Peabody Historical Society.


Early Settlement

The settlement by the English of the area known today as Peabody began when the Massachusetts Bay Company established the Town of Salem in 1629.  As the population of Salem grew, emigrants began to settle to the north and west of the immediate coastal area.  These outlying areas of Salem were referred to as Northfields, The Farms or Brooksby, and would, through a series of mergers and name changes, evolve into what is today the City of Peabody.

In the 17th century Peabody was largely wilderness, with many meadows, large hills, swamps and pastures and an extensive network of rivers and streams.  The majority of the early settlers were farmers, but Peabody was also a center of industry.  The first industrial venture began prior to 1635 when Captain William Trask established a grist mill at the head of the North River, the location of present day Peabody Square.  In 1670, Joseph Pope opened the first saw mill, and in 1685 Jeremiah Meacham, a clothier, built a fulling mill for the preparation and processing of cloth.  A glasshouse opened in the Aborn Street area in 1638, possibly the first of its kind in America.  The leather industry, for which Peabody became famous, began as early as 1639, when Philemon Dickerson was granted land for tan pits and the dressing.

Pottery Industry

During the eighteenth century Peabody became a center for the production of redware, a type of earthenware pottery produced from the iron-rich clay found in abundance on the banks of the North and Waters Rivers.  The clay is gray, but takes on a distinctive red color after firing.  Early potters produced redware by “throwing” the clay on a potter’s wheel and baking it in a kiln that had been dug into the earth.  The first pottery in Peabody was established by Jonathan Kettle in 1731 on Andover Street.  In 1736, Joseph Osborn opened the first of several potteries run by the Osborn family in the Central Street area.  Over the next century, the Osborns became the leading producers of redware in the region.  Redware made in the Osborn shops became known as “Danvers Pottery.”

By 1775, seventy-five potteries were operating in the two towns of Danvers and Peabody.  During the first half of the nineteenth century, demand for redware decreased because of an increase in the availability cheap imports.  By 1855, only two potteries remained in Peabody.  One was owned by Joseph Reed, who had purchased a pottery on Central Street from the Osborn family.  In 1876, Reed sold the pottery to Moses B. Paige.  Paige Pottery was the last establishment in Peabody to manufacture redware.  Paige Pottery remained in operation until the 1950s when it was destroyed by fire.

Image: Paige Pottery, Central Street, Early 20th Century

Leather Industry 

Beginning in the late 18th century, Peabody experienced a tremendous growth in industry and manufacturing.  The most far-reaching and lucrative of these ventures was the production of leather.  By 1855 there were 27 tanneries in South Danvers and 24 currying establishments (which processed finished leather to make it more flexible and waterproof).  Railroad tracks crisscrossed downtown Peabody as trains from Boston and beyond carried leather hides into the city to be tanned and exported all over the world.  In 1919, Peabody was recognized as the world’s largest producer of leather, and was widely referred to as “The Leather City.”  At this time, there were 91 establishments dedicated to the production and processing of leather.  The industry began to decline with the onset of the Depression.  A major leather-worker strike in 1933 further crippled the industry as well as devastating fires throughout the 20th century. By the 1970s, most of the remaining companies moved overseas, while others closed due to increasing state and federal environmental regulations. Today the Travel Leather Company is the only tannery still operating in Peabody.  In 2009, the City of Peabody opened the Peabody Leatherworkers Museum on Washington Street (adjacent to the George Peabody House) to celebrate the rich history of the leather industry in Peabody.

Peabody Today

Though the loss of the tanneries was a blow to Peabody’s economy, the city has been able to compensate, in part, by other forms of economic development.  In 1930, the Eastman Gelatin Corporation took over the American Glue Company factory on Washington Street to produce the gelatin used in Kodak film.  Eastman was a boon the city during the Great Depression, and the factory continues to operate today.  Centennial Industrial Park, which was developed by the Peabody Community Development Authority in the mid-1980s, is the headquarters of many medical, technological and manufacturing firms.  The retail industry has thrived in Peabody since the opening of the North Shore Mall in 1958, which was then the largest shopping center in New England.

But Peabody’s main resource continues to be its people. Every September the city celebrates the diversity of its heritage with the annual International Festival in Peabody Square, where thirty-six nationalities and cultures are represented through exhibits, art, and cuisine.  In 2012 we were among the 100 Best Cities to Live by Money Magazine and in April 2009, Forbes Magazine listed the City of Peabody as Number 14 on its list of most livable cities in America, signifying that Peabody remains a vibrant and flourishing community.

Timeline for the Evolution of Peabody

1629 – Settlement of Salem.  Peabody was referred to as Northfields, The Farms or Brooksby.

1710 – Formation of the Middle Precinct of Salem consisting of the area between Salem Village (now Danvers) and Salem Town.

1752 – Founding of the District of Danvers.  The Middle Precinct became known as the South Parish of Danvers.

1757 – Official separation from Salem and incorporation of the Town of Danvers.  Peabody was still known as the South Parish of Danvers.

1855 – Official separation from Danvers and incorporation of the Town of South Danvers.

1868 – Change in name from South Danvers to Peabody.

1916 – Incorporation of the City of Peabody.

See the full History here