The Log Cabin TRADITION
The log home. From where does the log cabin come? Hum. Good question, that. Our earliest reference comes to us from Vitruvius (you know, the Vitruvian Triad, “Firmness, Commodity, Delight” in buildings), Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, architect to Caesar Augustus, who informs us that in Cappadocia (contemporary, Northeastern Turkey) the typical dwelling was composed of horizontally laid logs whose gaps were filled with chips and mud. This, a tradition known by archeological research to have been employed by Scandinavians, some 5,500 years ago. And this, as you have guessed, the tradition of log homes that comes to us from the Swedes and the Finns and the Danes, beginning slowly in the 17th Century A.D., continuing apace until the early 20th Century, by which time nearly one-third of those Scandinavian people left their ancient homes to become native of these United States, our people.
To this day, you will find log homes Maine to California, Florida to Washington, in Alaska where settler cabins are made much as they were 5,500 years ago, with but some few technological advances: the fireplace (43 A.D., Roman bakers invented the fireplace; 1066, the chimney was invented; 1678, Prince Rupert of Rhine invented the fireplace grate; 1742, the [Benjamin] Franklin Stove, et cetera), the glass window came, as did much else (including textual criticism) from the Greek, Macedonian city of Alexandria, Egypt, circa 100 A.D., and was little changed until the plate-glass window of the 20th Century … “thank you” Jesus, and Emile Fourcault (the Belgian inventor of the quenching, glass-draw process).
Circa 1640 along the banks of the Delaware River, Delaware to New York sprung-up homey little cabins carved from the woods, well, what was left of the woods from the conflagrations of the Iroquois and Mohicans. Each cabin required but an ax, a froe, and about ten days to build a house sufficient for a single man, a house seven horizontal logs high. A team of men, in about ten days, could build a two-story, fancy home for a family, and this, our tradition Delaware to California, to Alaska. Should say, recently, log homes are found in Hawaii. Remarkable.
Types of cabins you might know
The “Dogtrot”, English in tradition, two rooms separated by a central hall, each room boasting its own fireplace;
the “Scots-Irish”, a single 16’ x 20’ room with one large hearth and two doors, one front, one back, directly opposite;
the “Saddlebag”, a two-room cabin, each room with a chimney, each with a door or window or two, and a loft for sleeping or storage.
There are many famous American cabins: the parade-cabins of candidate William Henry Harrison, employed to win the favor of frontier voters, and, of course, Lincoln’s log cabins … well, his several log cabins: his birthplace home, Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky (1809 – 1811); his first boyhood home, Knob Creek Farm, Kentucky (1811 – 1816); his second boyhood home, Lincoln, Indiana (1816 – 1830); his temporary home, Lincoln Trail Homestead (1830 – 1831); his adult home at the pioneer village of New Salem, Illinois (1831 – 1837). Lincoln’s other homes, Springfield, Illinois and Washington, D.C., as you know, were not log cabins.
Another log cabin, famous in literature, in myth and politics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly, the novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) that flamed tempers which soon set the Country to fire in The War to End Slavery (1861 – 1865). You will remember the story: the long-suffering American slave, Uncle Tom, resident of a Kentucky log cabin, who is sold down-the-river where he meets a beatific girl whom he befriends in Christian love, and then a happy life until Tom is sold to the contemptable Simon Legree … well, you know the story, typical of Greek tragedy and European high opera, sex, revenge, death, et cetera. When Lincoln met Stowe, Lincoln is reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who started the great war.”
Of course, likely, your log home, the Lincoln Logs, invented in 1916 by Frank Lloyd Wright’s second son, John … the first son, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., followed his father’s practice – of the three, I much prefer the work of John, a bringer of much happiness and sound design. What to say: “When John was with his father who was crafting the earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel, Tokyo (1916-17), John conceived a toy-home based upon his father’s construction widget (the tiny log you know), and formed a company that found early success in marketing to both girls and boys a simple, joyful form of creativity.” Should mention, the original Lincoln Log Set came with instructions to build Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An interesting equilibrium.
Here, not space sufficient to expand upon the Classive log homes of the Arts & Crafts, Greene and Greene, et alia. That, for some full issue of The Beautiful Home, or, perhaps, of some Home: A History episode. We shall see.
PERHAPS YOU KNEW
Among the etymology of “window”, the Old Norse vindauga, from vindr , “wind”, and auga, “eye”, that is, “wind eye”. And then, sensibly, “window” replaced the Old English eagþyrl, “eye-hole”, and eagduru, “eye-door”. Most every day you speak a bit of Viking, of Old Norse, the “sk” words, school, skull, skill, et cetera,
and of the Gods: Tuesday, Tiesdi’s Day; Wednesday, Woden’s Day; Thursday, Thor’s Day; Friday, Frigga’s Day.
When building a log cabin, face the main door, and window, if you have one, south … allows the sun to shine in. Notice the vindauga, the wind-eye that shines upon Lincoln’s home, sheltered in a probable, American, Doric temple in the woods of Kentucky, that beautiful eye of the roof, designed by the brilliant John Russell Pope.
The recluse and misanthrope, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his book of savage, home economics, Walden: or, Life in the Woods (1854), “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
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The temple’s inscription reads:
HERE * OVER THE LOG CABIN WHERE ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS BORN * DESTINED TO PRESERVE THE UNION AND FREE THE SLAVE * A GRATEFUL PEOPLE HAVE DEDICATED THIS MEMORIAL * TO UNITY PEACE AND BROTHERHOOD AMONG THESE STATES
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Featured image: Lincoln’s Birthplace Memorial; cradled inside, the symbolic, Lincoln Cabin; John Russell Pope, architect, 1911
A sculptor, painter, historian, architectural designer, and poet, Michael Curtis has taught and lectured at universities, colleges, and museums, including The Institute of Classical Architecture, The Center for Creative Studies, and The National Gallery of Art;
his pictures and statues are housed in over 400 private and public collections, including The Library of Congress, The National Portrait Gallery, and The Supreme Court;
he has made statues of presidents, generals, Supreme Court Justices, captains of industry and national heroes, including Davey Crockett, General Eisenhower, and Justice Thurgood Marshall;
his relief and medals are especially fine, they include, among others, presidents Truman and Reagan, Justice John Marshall, George Washington, and, his History of Texas, containing over one-hundred figures, is the largest American relief sculpture of the 20th Century;
his monuments and memorials, buildings and houses, including The New American Home, 2011, are found coast-to-coast;
his plays, essays, verse and translations have been published in over 30 journals (Trinacria, Society of Classical Poets, Expansive Poetry, et cetera), and his most recent nonfiction books are, Occasional Poetry: How to Write Poems for Any Occasion (available through The Studio Press), and The Classical Architecture and Monuments of Washington, D.C. (available through The History Press);
Mr. Curtis is the National Civic Art Society’s 2021-2022 Research Scholar.