The early colonists arrived on the American continent with very few possessions. Among their most fundamental and pressing needs was housing. They needed a quick way to put a roof over their heads to protect themselves and their families from inclement weather. Small one-room cabins constructed of logs quickly became a popular choice. These makeshift structures required little skill and few tools to build. One man working alone could erect a house in a matter of a few weeks. They were simple structures, to be sure, but they provided temporary shelter. With a home to live in, these early settlers could turn their attention to farming and making money to support themselves. A few years of good harvests could allow them to replace the old log cabin with a “strong board” house made of sawn timber.
It is not clear from historical documents when the first log cabin was built, but references to homes made of logs show up in written records dating back to the late 1600s. This style of house was new to the Americas but was not a new idea. The Swedes had been building log cabin style homes for thousands of years. When Swedish and Finnish immigrants came to the Americas, they brought with them the building style and skills they knew.
Log cabins were well-suited to this new land in which they had arrived. Much of the land was covered in trees. Before building a house, each family needed to clear space for their home and livestock. The trees removed in the clearing process could be used in the construction of their new home. Of course, only long, thick trunks could be used to build a house.
Structure and Design
Log cabins were never intended to be long-lasting structures. However, they did need to be strong enough to protect the family until they could make enough money to upgrade their cabin to a larger or more stylish home. Thus, most log homes were very modest in size, measuring only 12-16 feet long on each side of the cabin. The walls were made of long, straight tree trunks notched on both ends, allowing the logs to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Each log had to be stripped of all bark, as the bark would quickly rot if left exposed to the weather. Gaps between the logs were filled with mud or clay in a process known as “daubing” or “chinking.”
All four walls of the cabin went up simultaneously. If a man had to build his house alone, he could usually only manage to build it 6-7 feet tall. That was the limit of his reach. However, working together, a home could be built several feet taller. These taller walls facilitated the addition of a sleeping loft above the main room of the cabin, giving the family more space inside.
Without the indoor creature comforts that we have today, the colonists did their best to make their homes comfortable. Doors usually faced south to allow the sun to shine into the house during daylight hours.
In addition to the door, most log homes had one or two windows to allow daylight to shine inside. However, glass to cover these openings was a luxury they did not have. Instead, greased paper covered the windows frames. While the paper kept the raindrops outside, it did little to keep them warm. A stone fireplace positioned at one end of the cabin served as the kitchen and furnace all in one. In many cases, the floors were packed dirt, although some homes did have split log floors.
Furnishings were limited. Most early immigrants came over with very few possessions. They usually brought a wooden trunk to carry a few necessities, including clothing, tools, and possibly a rug or candlesticks from their homeland. Once here, they would need a small kitchen table, a bed, and a chair or two. Beyond these few functional pieces, there would not have been much room or need for much more.
The log cabin was still a popular starter home for many pioneers and poor farmers alike well into the 1800s. When William Henry Harrison ran for President in 1840, he was mocked for his humble beginnings in a log house. Instead of being upset by the remarks and political cartoons that caricatured his early years, he embraced it. His supporters did, too. They marched in political rallies carrying flags depicting log cabins. These humble structures symbolized the fact that one could rise from a humble log cabin to have great potential in the land of opportunity. They were, in short, a symbol of the American Spirit.
Twenty years later, another log cabin dweller became President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. After his assassination in 1865, the log cabin home’s place in American history was sealed. It would forever be a symbol of pre-Civil War America. Although efforts were made to secure his boyhood home as a historical landmark, the original cabin was long gone. Today, a rebuilt cabin stands in Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky.
Although many homes were no longer constructed of logs, the commercialization of the log cabin carried on. In the 1880s, Log Cabin Syrup was introduced. Up until the 1960s, this brand of syrup featured a picture of President Lincoln’s cabin on the tin. In 1916, architect Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the children’s building toy, Lincoln Logs. So named for President Lincoln, the set contained notched toy logs children used to build their very own log cabins.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and some of the fanciest homes in some of the nicest places are log cabins. While the building methods are greatly improved to incorporate all of the modern comforts that we have come to expect in a home, the look is the same. Homeowners can now easily achieve the look of a log cabin with log siding. They can have their own cozy piece of Americana.
The history of the log cabin is not your traditional rags-to-riches story. It came to this country with immigrants desperate for four walls and a roof over their heads. People used their knowledge and the materials at hand to build a simple structure to get by until they could afford something better. Yet, this structure that was once looked down upon has become an American symbol. It shows what we can accomplish and become through our hard work and effort.