In 1792, Pearson & Sons opened up a bakery in the building that is next to the Custom House. They initially like many others in Newburyport produced HardTack, which before them was really a cottage industry with many homes filling the stores of the sailing ships going out to sea. John Pearson introduced a more reliable product and his bakery began to obtain a reputation for consistency and quality.
But what really helped him was his invention of Pilot Bread which later became, under the NABISCO brand, Crown Pilot Cracker. Hard Tack was long lasting but it literally could break your teeth if not softened. Pearson created Pilot Bread which was more palatable and could also survive long sea voyages. He introduced a higher level of sugar and shortening content to make it more easy to consume and even had two varieties: flaky pilot bread and what is termed a Barge Biscuit. New Englanders used the product in chowders and it gained wide-spread acceptance as a basic tradition. So much so, that when Nabisco discontinued it in 1996, a small uprising occurred from Maine to Connecticut; and the company hastily brought it back into production in 1997. Sadly, as New England has moved into the 21st century and emerged as a more non-maritime society; the demand for Pilot Bread has precipitously dropped. The crackers are an important ingredient in many New England recipes for seafood stuffings, chowders, and soups as well as in many recipes of the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador including fish and brews. After a continuing drop in sales, it was finally discontinued in the first quarter of 2008.
Though it has dropped the line, NABISCO still proudly traces it’s origins to its very first popular product which had wide acceptance throughout the Maritime Provinces.
Fortunately, it can still be obtained locally at the G.H. Bent Company; another source is the Intebake Foods Company in Richmond, Virginia. They receive a steady revenue from the Alaskan and Canadian Regions where pilot bread is still in demand. Their brand is called “Sailor Boy’s Pilot Bread. It can be purchased online for a small price. For pricing information, they can be contacted at 800.367.9833.
Newburyport can be proud that this ‘invention’ first had its start in the little building that lies directly due west of the Custom House. Urban Elements is presently the tenant on the first floor. But alas, there is no plaque or historical marker that signifies how important that building is to Newburyport or to Nabisco. The only way to know is to visit the Custom House and speak to a docent or to take one of Ralph Ayer’s history tours!
Another lost piece of history, exposed to the open air! (The Internet)
- Oliver, Sandy (April 2008), The Crown Pilot Cracker Escapade: 11 Years Later, The Working Waterfront
- Wallace, Kurt J. (1997), Fine Kettles of Fish: A Treasury of Seafood Chowders, Bisques, Soups & Stews, The Peninsula Press, ISBN978-1-883684-15-0
- Nacelewicz, Tess (May 23, 2008), Seafood chowder loses its crunchy companion, Portland Press Herald & Maine Sunday Telegram
- Zezima, Katie (June 11, 2008), A Missing Staple Puts Many a Maine Chowder Recipe in Jeopardy, The New York Times
- The Interbake Foods Company in Richmond, Virginia (interbake.com) , Pilot Bread, called, “Sailor Boy Pilot Bread”.
- H. Bent Company, www.bentscookiefactory.com