The log cabin–with its architectural roots in the Roman Empire and its mythological ones indelibly intertwined in American history–is the topic of Matthew’s latest public-radio segment, which you can stream here. At HGS, we’re so inspired by the log cabin and the toy it inspired–remember Lincoln Logs?–that we even offer our own version in the store.
Prefer to read about this favorite object? The script of the log-cabin segment from Matthew’s weekly program “The Shape of Things,” was produced with RobinHoodRadio.com in nearby Sharon, Connecticut, “the smallest NPR station in the nation.” The entire show archive is at this link.
Log Cabin by Matthew White
The log cabin has for centuries been an iconic image in American mythology. It provided shelter to early settlers who started from nothing to build a life in a new land.
Abraham Lincoln famously was born in a log cabin, but he wasn’t the only American President who was. Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan were as well, among several others. This narrative – starting from humble beginnings to achieve greatness–defines the American story.
But Americans did not invent the log cabin. In certain regions of the Roman Empire log houses were documented by ancient writers. In later centuries they were common in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
In 1919, John Lloyd Wright, the son of the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, invented the toy – Lincoln Logs. This was a set of miniature interlinking logs that allowed a child to become their own architect. It was one of my favorite toys growing up, and everyone I knew had a set. The original instructions showed how to build Abraham Lincoln’s cabin as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a 19th-century novel (often derided as stereotyping African Americans) was an anti slavery story written by Harriet Beecher Stowe who was born in Connecticut. It was published in 1852 and according to some, helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War. It was the most popular novel of the 19th century, read widely in the United States and England. The impact of this story of a slave, Uncle Tom, was praised in the North and caused great anger in the South. It’s notable that the humble abode of the fictional Uncle Tom, and the very real President Lincoln were the same.
In the 20th century, log cabins moved away from being places that represented poverty to become a desirable, yet rustic retreat. In the 1940’s when my father was a boy, his Dad acquired a plot of land in Lake City, Colorado and built a log cabin for that very purpose.
“The cabin” as it was simply called has been THE place for family vacations from the time it was built to today. It’s a simple, small building with a concrete floor, un-insulated log walls with a large stone fireplace centered between windows in the main room.
Whenever our family drove the nine hours to the cabin, our anticipation was almost unbearable as we climbed the mountains to our destination. We celebrated by rolling down the windows of the car to take in the clean and powerful fragrance of the pine forest.
We always arrived late at night, and climbed immediately into bed. There were two small bedrooms downstairs with double bunk beds for the adults, each room sleeping two couples. In the attic loft, barrack-like cots was where we kids slept. The pillows and thin mattresses were hard and covered in old mattress ticking while itchy wool army blankets kept us warm. Everything about the place was rustic and perfect.
To one side of this plain log building, a simple kitchen was tacked on. It had a huge stove and an enormous old dining table painted glossy white. The mismatching wooden chairs surrounding it were also painted white. This table could seat a small army, which we were, when all the Aunts, Uncles and cousins gathered.
The room was lined with windows, perfectly placed to look out at birds, bear, deer and other wildlife that came down from the mountain to drink at the stream that ran next to the house.
My earliest and most pleasurable memories were of that first morning, waking up. Summer was just starting so the mornings were cool. What woke us initially were muffled noises from the kitchen, followed by delicious aromas of breakfast being prepared. First coffee, and then bacon frying in a large cast iron skillet. Soon followed were the sleepy, happy voices of the adults as they gathered in those early hours.
There was a particular sound to their voices on that inaugural morning of our vacation. The tone was sweet and relaxed as if every care in the world had been lifted from them. They were also quiet, as they wanted us children to sleep as long as possible. There was nothing on the agenda except to go fly-fishing, prepare a picnic or plan a hike.
Meanwhile, in the loft upstairs, our stomachs would growl as bleary eyes opened and small feet, covered in footed pajamas hit the cool loft floor. We’d pad down the steep steps and out the screen door, which slammed behind us as we entered the tacked on kitchen.
There we would find biscuits pulled piping hot from the oven, scrambled eggs and bacon heaped on plates, coffee cups refilled for the grownups and orange juice in old jelly glasses for us kids. Honey and butter and jam were mounded onto biscuits as we watched in rapt fascination the squirrels and bluebirds birds going about their business in the bright morning sun.
These blissful childhood pleasures took place in a lowly log cabin – a primitive building that remains a type of vernacular architecture that resonates with many Americans to this day. Whether it was a place that held dire poverty and hardship, or stories of historic nobility and the chance to beat the odds, or was a place to return to simple pleasures, this straight-forward, simply shaped structure is an architectural symbol of the American spirit.