The log cabin is more complicated than you may think. In fact, I wrote a whole book about it, one beginning with the question, “Why is the log cabin a BFD in the USA?”
You can learn the fully labyrinthine and altogether fascinating answer in said book, The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History. But as you wait for your copy to arrive, here are 14 things you never knew about log cabins, plus two tangentially related factoids, too.
1. No Log Cabins in Plymouth:
We’ve all seen school books and Thanksgiving cards depicting cheery Pilgrims building log cabins, images that cast the structure as the invention of English settlers, as America’s first true home. But that’s all bunk.
The truth of the matter is that English colonists didn’t live in log cabins. They didn’t even know how to make log cabins. Accustomed to fine brick and frame homes back home, that’s what they built when they got here. Well, not immediately.
First, they slummed it in subterranean dugouts, waiting in the mud until planks could be cut and bricks kiln-fired. It was not a good look… Luckily these ugly bits would be edited out in the centuries ahead.
2. The Swedes and Finns Did It:
So, if the English didn’t bring log cabins to American shores, then who? I guess the sub-header here sort of spoils the beans, but, yes, it was the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden who erected America’s first log cabins. They and their ancestors had been building them for generations, so whipping them together here was simple as pie. But they didn’t make a lasting impression.
New Sweden was so small in population and so short-lived — it fell to the Dutch in 1655 and the land was brought under British rule in 1664 — that it had very little pull in colonial culture at large. Their English and Dutch neighbors weren’t about to copy their homes; Swedish and Finnish log cabins were therefore anomalies in this era, and the structure probably would have faded into oblivion had it not been for the thousands of immigrants who started arriving in the 1700s.
3. Immigrant Go-To:
Yep, that’s right: the log cabin, that icon of the “authentically American” pioneer, was spread by immigrants, first by the Germans who started flooding over in 1710 and then the Scots-Irish who were hot on their heels.
Such structures came easily to the former: like the Swedes and Finns, the Germans had plenty of experience with log cabins, thanks to centuries of living in vast forests back home. The Scots-Irish weren’t as lucky. With little forest to draw upon in their homeland, they typically lived in mud huts and hovels; the log cabin was completely new to them. They were therefore forced to decide: they could live in dugouts like the English, or they could copy their German, Swedish and Finnish neighbors. It was a no-brainer.
These early Scots-Irish efforts weren’t always the best — F. A. Michaux noted in 1789 that these cabins were “so carelessly” constructed “that light can be seen through in every part,” — but the novice architects’ skills improved over time, especially as they moved further and further into the frontier, where the impoverished immigrants found land cheap or free. And it was in this way that the log cabin diffused into and through the colonies-cum-country: poor immigrants using it as the springboard to a new life in the New World.
4. Benjamin Franklin Wasn’t a Fan:
Nor were his peers. For all their talk about equality for all, most of the Founding Fathers were classist jerks who thought the log cabin and its inhabitants were beneath them. Dr. Benjamin Rush, surgeon general for the Continental Army and a fellow signatory of the Declaration, dismissed cabin dwellers as “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts.” And their “licentious” manner of living was repulsed Christian mores: “It has been remarked, that the flight of this class of people is always increased by the preaching of the gospel,” Rush wrote in 1787.
Meanwhile, according to Franklin, there were two types of people: “Those who are well dress’d and live comfortably in good houses,” and “the poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious, and live in miserable cabins.” The log cabin’s iconic status was still a long ways off.
5. The Log Cabin, America’s Every Building:
Ironically, as Franklin, Rush and company were wondering if the log cabin was anti-Christian, the structure was instrumental not only in “assimilating” American Indians into Christianity, but also in proselytizing “backward” country dwellers, as seen in the above image of Catholic priest Edward D. Fenwick preaching in rural Ohio circa 1800-1810. Endlessly adaptable, the structure was also used for frontier schools, shops, post offices and even polling places.
6. Romantics Made It Hot:
Speaking of irony: for all its rugged rusticity, the log cabin’s ascension to beloved American icon was catalyzed by romantic artists. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 work The Pioneers, the first in a franchise that would later include The Last of the Mohicans, celebrated the log cabin as epicenter for frontier life; and Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake greatly improved the generic pioneers’ public standing.
These two works were the start of a trend in which the organic and natural were elevated above rationality and reason. From then on, the log cabin dweller was someone to be admired for their grit and envied for their rural freedom.
6.5 Pioneers Were Once ‘Forlorn:’
As a bonus bit of trivia: the word “pioneers” was rarely used in a positive context before Cooper’s 1823 novel. It was previously more alike its French origin, les pionniers, the military term for the first wave of soldiers in battle; on a kamikaze mission, they were a “forlorn hope.” French author and student of American ways J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur wrote in 1782, “In all societies there are off-casts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers….”
Pre-Romanticism pioneers were basically disposable; post-Romanticism, they were national heroes deserving of respect and emulation.
7. Lying Liars Cemented Its Popularity:
While Romantic artists sowed the nation’s log cabin love, it was William Henry Harrison who reaped the rewards — and so would countless future candidates, including Abraham Lincoln.
The year was 1840 and Harrison, a relative political outsider, was running against incumbent Democratic President Martin van Buren. Wealthy and well-heeled Harrison and his fellow Whigs hoped to win on the retired general’s war record. But then, in what was probably the most ill-planned and fateful political attack in American history, the Democrat-aligned Baltimore Republican ran a smear against Harrison that basically said he was a yokel unfit for the august White House. The money quote: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.”
The jibe backfired. Completely and disastrously. The Democrats forgot that millions of Americans had been born in and/or lived in log cabins, and those millions of Americans were pissed. Who did van Buren think he was, insulting log cabin-dwelling Americans, the backbone of the nation? There, right in their lap, was the Whigs’ ticket to victory.
Doing a complete 180, and working overtime to suppress Harrison’s wealth, the Whigs now portrayed their candidate as a humble farmer who fought for the little guy. And Harrison got in on the act, too, telling cheering crowds that he would have rather stayed in his log cabin, but he couldn’t resist the people’s calls: “I would have preferred to remain with my family in the peace and quiet of our log cabin . . . rather than become engaged in political or other disputes.” He won by a landslide. And so, from thenceforth, the log cabin was an icon of all-American humility, determination and honesty — and it all started with a politically-motivated lie.
8. The Log Cabin, America’s First Mass Market Fad:
Harrison’s presidential campaign not only turned the log cabin into a reliable political tool, but it cemented the structure as a reliable marketing gimmick, too, spawning shelf after shelf of log cabin-branded crap, including but not limited to hair brushes, toy cabin sets, log cabin hand mirrors, all touting Harrison and his log cabin.
A few decades down the road, after mass production kicked into high gear, late-19th century entrepreneurs harnessed the log cabins’ inherent good will to brand their own products. This was there era of HH Warner’s “Log Cabin” tonics, elixirs, salves and ointments, a time of Log Cabin Tobacco, and this was also when Towle’s Log Cabin Syrup first hit the shelves, where it can still be found today.
8.5 “Booze” Comes From Log Cabins:
Well, sort of. One of the most popular 1840-related tchotchkes were log cabin-shaped bourbon bottles; they were so popular that years later, in 1858, a Philadelphia-based entrepreneur copied them, selling his brand-new whiskey in bottles shaped like the beloved edifice. Massively popular for decades, and still a collector’s item, those bottles entrenched that entrepreneur’s name in the American vernacular: EG Booz.
9. Log Cabins Have a Dark Side:
And that’s an understatement. While Americans like to envision cabins as the sanguine epicenter of our nation, as wonderful woodland escapes and quaint retreats, the truth is that the idolized, romanticized structure’s been witness and complicit terrible crimes against humanity and the environment. Log cabins imprisoned millions of slaves, (note: these dismal structures were often called “slave quarters,” a sobriquet that removes them from larger, more romantic log cabin myths). Log cabins were also instrumental in the erosion of native traditions —not only in terms of proselytization, but also architecturally speaking. And log cabins played an integral role in the early mining, oil and lumber industries. It’s not as low impact as some people imagine.
10. Log Cabins, Perpetuator of Inequality:
Though log cabins are often portrayed as humble and populist, the structure also played an important role in spreading materialism in America — and not just in terms of tchotchkes. While rich Americans of the early 19th century scoffed at log cabins, we see just the opposite at the 1800s’ end, when industrial titans like Brooklyn warehouse titan Timothy Woodruff, banking mogul JP Morgan and scion Alfred Vanderbilt paid through the nose for massive log cabin mansions in The Adirondacks and elsewhere. Regaled with front page newspaper stories about their “glamping” lifestyle, poor Americans living in log cabins hoped against hope they could escape their measly log cabins for gargantuan ones instead.
11. The Log Cabin’s History was Rewritten:
There’s a reason so many people think Pilgrims invented the log cabin: late 19th and early 20th century historians had heard popular myths for so long that they just assumed and then insisted that log cabins had been around in the English colonies’ earliest days.
John G. Palfrey, one of his era’s most respected historians, wrote in 1860 that Jamestown’s settlers “made themselves comfortable in log- houses, of construction similar to those which are still scen [sic] in new settlements;” Philip Alexander Bruce made the same assertion in 1896: “undressed logs were doubtless the material principally in use” in early Jamestown; and then there was this 1915 claim, “All down the past through centuries, the log house has marked the outpost of civilization.” These myths were subsequently rehashed in Thanksgiving cards, children’s books, toys and games.
Though a few historians tried to discredit these myths — Palfrey wrote a disclaimer in 1872 that there was no proof of such log cabins; and a number of historians made valiant attempts in the mid-1900s — it was too late: Americans wanted to believe the log cabin was their collective ancestral home, and they made it so.
12. Log Cabins Were Once Government Housing:
In the 1930s, after drought and depression led to massive displacement, the U.S. government dispatched thousands of volunteers to build log cabin villages in places like Alaska and Florida, providing fresh slates for newly homeless and broke Americans. In other words, they were early versions of FEMA trailers.
13. Disney Gave Log Cabins a Popularity Boost:
One of the most powerful cultural forces behind the log cabin’s mid-to-late twentieth century prominence was, who else?, Walt Disney. Well, Disney and Davy Crockett, the folk hero Disney dusted off for his Disneyland anthology series.
Airing on the nascent ABC network, the first Crockett installment was an instant sensation, sparking a merchandizing frenzy like none other: hundreds upon hundreds of manufacturers clamored for Crockett-branded sheets, lamps, t-shirts, jeans, hunting caps, cap guns, posters, books, lunch boxes and so much more, all garnering Disney $100 million in just six months, i.e.: enough money to finish his under-construction eponymous Disneyland.
Disney’s log cabin-dwelling Crockett was the Harrison of his time: the front man for a whole new log cabin craze.
14. It’s in Our National DNA:
All that said, though contemporary Americans’ fascination with log cabins — log cabin-themed television shows, books, the “lumbersexual” and “pioneer woman” movements — may seem like a reaction to our hyper-connected world, it’s more Pavlovian than all that…
We saw a resurgence in log cabin adoration during the Industrial Era, again after World War I and again after its even more devastating sequel. The log cabin was there for 60s-era hippies and vacationers, and rose once again in the 1980s, when social conservatives ruled the roost and when wealthy people like Donald Trump and Mohamed Hadid fought over log cabins in Aspen.
So, while log cabins may go out of style for a bit, replaced, perhaps, by athleisure or, as happened in the 1990s, futuristic metallic fabrics, I’d bet my bottom dollar the structure, its style and its accoutrements will be around for generations to come.
For more on America’s favorite hard wood icon, check out The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History.