Getting Hosed

The secret history of a present-day bar

2-028BWHPhoto: Cambridge Historical Society

By Gavin Kleespies


ver been to the Cambridge Brewing Company and thought, “This looks like and old factory. I wonder what they made before they made beer here?” This photo (above) is from the inside of that factory. It was once the Boston Woven Hose company, and, like many of its neighbors in Kendall Square, was an innovative company that changed how the world works.

What the company did was make fire hoses that didn’t explode. Once upon a time, fire hoses were made of leather strips riveted together. Too much pressure would cause the rivets to pop and storing them incorrectly would cause the leather to crack. In 1870, Cambridge’s Lyman Blake invented the new machine that could sew rubber-lined canvas into a hose and Colonel Theodore Dodge saw a possibility for an improved fire hose.

Starting with this idea, Dodge worked with James Gillespie and Robert Cowen to create woven multi-tubular fabrics, or essentially hoses woven from rubber and cotton. These hoses were flexible and resilient and could withstand much greater pressure. Dodge and Cowen rented space in the old Curtis Davis Soap factory on Portland Street and started to market their wares.

Thanks to the innovations of these people, the fire hoses used by modern-day firefighters are based on their designs. Fire hoses these days are usually made of rubber and can be purchased from companies like for example. These fire hoses are much more effective for firefighters, the old designs were inadequate due to their tendency to explode.

It took them 10 years to convince conservative fire chiefs to begin using their hoses. But their persistence paid off, and by the mid 1880s they became the producer of fire hoses that changed firefighting in America. By the mid 20th century, Dodge and Cowen had grown to become the largest manufacturers of rubber parts in the world, from bicycle tires to convertible tops to the liners for gasoline tanks to heels for shoes.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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