The American Log Cabin, its Symbols and Forms
We first learn of the log cabin from Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, architect to Augustus Caesar) in his book, De architectura, “Of architecture” (1st Century A.D.). Vitruvius describes the houses of Pontus (Turkey) as dwellings of overlaid logs whose horizontal gaps are filled with chips and mud, an apt description of the log cabin to this day. Archaeologists speculate, perhaps accurately, that log houses were in use during the Bronze Age, some 5,500 years ago. These log houses were found in Northern Europe where trees were plentiful, where innovation was necessary for survival. From here, log houses rapidly developed from the round log lean-to into hewn log cabins with gabled roofs, with centered openings (to release pit-fire smoke), with interlocking corner joints that kept each cabin tight and firm. In Europe, the animal hide tent soon passed from fashion and use.
Cabins of medieval Europe were chattel houses, “moveable houses”, that would travel with families in want or in need, or for better opportunity, much alike today’s mobile home. And, as you would expect, these houses often required repair and updating … a trip to the woods with an axe was much alike a trip to Lowes or Home Depot with a car. Then, as now, there were cabins in many styles and forms, some decorative, some plain, some simple, some extravagant. At but one cultural museum in Norway, 14 distinct log house elevations are identified.
In the late Renaissance, a generation after Shakespeare’s death (1616), log cabins were constructed on the American continent. * Many of these cabins yet survive, serving as museums of history and culture. Historians propose that our first American cabins were constructed by Swedes and Finns along the Brandywine River in Nya Sverige (New Sweden), Delaware (1640). The practical advantage of the log house was obvious and soon spread to the colonies of the Dutch, the Germans, the English, and the various “nations” of Indians. Should mention: the Indian, wooden long house was a single-room house similar to a manor house, the home of a baron that would shelter an entire community. The log cabin was and is a single-family dwelling.
American Log Cabins
Decades ago, I composed a satirical short story that included the line, “…men, being creatures who cannot gaze upon the object of a pristine valley without plopping a cabin upon it…” is a truth evidenced by American log cabins Atlantic to Pacific.
Our common process of log cabin creation: choose the most beautiful, most virginal site, a site suitable for the generation of family, identify the straightest, tallest, strongest trees, cut them down, remove the limbs, stack the pile, apply the containing, sheltering roof; from local river-stone construct a fireplace and then burn the wasted limbs and local debris to warm the family before the comfy hearth.
Of course, there are local conventions of building, of regional style and personal taste; even so, all log cabins have this in common: the inheritance of rugged individualism 5,000 years in the making, the tradition of American pioneering, the “this is mine” attitude of the self-made.
In particular, the log cabin remembers the wood, the axe, the back that lifted the log to place, the hand that filled the gap with mud, straw, cement, or whatever was to hand. Sometimes, the cabin’s walls and floor rest on cornerstones, sometimes on a floor of ground-laid logs. Sometimes, the exterior wall is flat-hewn to allow siding; sometimes the interior wall is flat-hewn to allow stucco or paper. Always, a fireplace, sometimes stone-ended, sometimes freestanding. Traditionally, there will be a sleeping loft or a second floor for bedding. Roofs are low-pitched, purlin (beams supporting crossing rafters) or rafters alone supported by the ridge and wall. Corner bracing might be V-hitch or dovetail, seldom nailed, often pegged.
Lately, there is much nonsense written about sustainability and “Green”, those Progressive philosophies that would compost you and me. Truth is, all things from the hands of man will rot, crumble, fall away, sink into the earth and be forgotten. In my brief life, I have seen the great houses and mansions of Detroit abandoned when fleeing government’s management of children in forced busing, have seen trees grow up from living rooms through roofs, have seen tattooed barbarians burn the houses of neighborhood, have seen the smoldering vacant plains become again the home of pheasant and fox
… and have seen cheap imitations of English timber-frame designed by trained modernist built to house tattooed persons subsidized by Progressive’s taxation of citizens who maintain traditional neighborhoods. Apology, considering health, neighborhood, American tradition, that needed to be said. Before we were corporate serfs made meek by Progressive government propaganda, we were a free and hardy people capable of familial love, of hewing logs and helping neighbors.
The Log Cabin Symbol
Johnny Appleseed … Johnny Appleseed and Lincoln … Johnny Appleseed and Lincoln and six other American presidents, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, James Garfield were among the pioneering Americans raised to manhood in the tradition of Northern Europe’s Bronze Age men. Yes, recall their lives in war, in struggle, in heroic contest, and remember the hero Beowulf, the mead hall alike the long house, and the woodsy cabins where men hardened by necessity grew in wisdom and fortitude. There is a direct line cabin to cabin, to cabin, to the great mead-hall-like log mansions of recent years.
The log cabin is a symbol of American sturdiness. W. H. Harrison employed the log cabin in his presidential campaign, symbol of his Americanness. One of Lincoln’s log cabins, Lincoln’s Boyhood Home, is enshrined within a Classive stone temple. At Johnny Appleseed’s boyhood home, a reproduction of his family’s log cabin** (New York) in miniature, and at his grave (Indiana), a rudely cut stone and a proposal to appropriately shelter Appleseed’s grave in a log cabin.
Lincoln Logs were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John, during the First World War (1916). You recognize the Lincoln Log, likely, you had a set, or your brother did, a set that the dog chewed, that was left scattered about the house, that was used for play in defense and in war, in imaginary homesteading, and in curious variations of architectural design. The original Lincoln Log Cabin set came with instructions on how to build Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the cabin featured in H.B. Stowe’s novel of sympathy and abolition. John’s father, Frank, learned technique in construction from the log cabin, employing its building system in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, a hotel that stubbornly, mightily resisted the wrecking ball when deemed old-fashioned, no longer of use.
Log Cabin Forms
A rectangular room (often 16’ x 20’) with a singular, generous hearth. A door in front and opposite door in back. A window, or several windows.
Two rooms connected by a door, each room with its own hearth and chimney, each room with a window or two. Above, a loft for storage or sleep, the loft accessible by ladder or stair.
Two rooms separated by an open walkway. Each room with its own fireplace. Both rooms sharing a continuous floor and roof.
Alike the wealthy suburban house, these log houses boast all the conveniences of living in economic liberty, expansive rooms, walls of glass, commercial-like kitchens, spa-like baths, and bedrooms often larger than the one-room cabins that sheltered the entire pioneering family. Yes, we owe a debt to our pioneering foreparents, gratitude to the log cabin tradition that has delivered us into wealth and comfort.
Typically, the Scotch-Irish and Saddlebag had a long porch (the Dogtrot’s porch was between the rooms) that extended the house in labor, shelter, and rest. The exterior walls would hold by peg or nail instruments of use for farm or house. Typically, these styles could be constructed by a competent man in a week-or-more, by several men in but several days, if simple and straight. To this day, competent pioneers in Alaska and other states continue to build cabins in a week, cabins that survive the generations.
Log Cabin quotes
There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin. Alexis de Tocqueville
As the architecture of a country always follows the earliest structures, American architecture should be a refinement of the log-house. The Egyptian is so of the cavern and the mound; the Chinese, of the tent; the Gothic, of overarching trees; the Greek, of a cabin. Nathaniel Hawthorne
There are elements of intrinsic beauty in the simplification of a house built on the log cabin idea. Gustav Stickley
The quiet rhythmic monotone of the wall of logs fills one with the rustic peace of a secluded nook in the woods. Gustav Stickley
I’m more at home with my log cabins than I am in my house in Cherry Hill. Muhammad Ali
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* Notice the similarity of construction between the medieval, Gothic houses of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts (1620), and the medieval log houses of Nya Sverige (New Sweden), Delaware (1640).
** (John Chapman) Johnny Appleseed’s father served with Washington in our War of Independence from Britain (1775-1783), walking home at the end of the War to his cabin and his waiting family.
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Log Cabin Details
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