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Log Cabin

LOG CABIN

LOG CABIN. Origins of the log cabin remain obscure. Historians asserted that Swedes on the lower Delaware introduced such construction in 1638. Others cited a log blockhouse, McIntyre Garrison (York, Maine), built between 1640 and 1645, as evidence that New England colonists had learned log construction for themselves, though some might have seen log buildings in Scandinavia and northern Germany. Native Americans did not build log structures. Such construction increased rapidly in the seventeenth century, and the one-or two-room log cabin became the typical American pioneer home, supplemented by log outbuildings. For dwellings, spaces between logs were filled with flat stones or wood chips embedded in clay. In stables, the crevices were usually left unfilled. As the frontier pushed westward, small log buildings became the first churches, schools, mills, stores, hotels, courthouses, and seats of town and county government. In the South, tall tobacco barns were built of long logs with wide, unfilled chinks between the logs, letting the wind blow through to dry the leaf tobacco. Many built their little huts single-handed or with the aid of family members; in settlements, a house-raising became a pioneer social function, as neighbors gathered and completed the essential structure in one day. More prosperous farmers or villagers might erect two-story log houses of several rooms, shingled on the outside (New England) or often weather-boarded farther west; in Pennsylvania they were occasionally stuccoed. Today bookstores sell construction plans.

The log cabin became a potent political icon. In December 1839, a pro-Democratic Party columnist belittled the Whig Party presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison, by saying he lived in a log cabin. Whigs seized upon the snobbery inherent in the remark, and Harrison rode to victory in the 1840 election as the "log cabin candidate." Other "log cabin presidents" followed: James Polk, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and James Garfield. Ironically, Harrison was born in a frame dwelling. Theodore Roosevelt sought a log cabin connection by noting how he lived in a log structure as a cowboy in the Dakota Badlands. Log cabins symbolized individualism, the pioneer spirit, humble beginnings, and hard work—proof that in America even someone from a poor background could become president. In 1989, Gay and Lesbian GOP members formed the Log Cabin Republicans.

Politics flowed to popular culture. In 1887, Log Cabin syrup first appeared, as did the earliest log cabin quilt pattern. Children could play with Lincoln Logs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kniffen, Fred, and Henry Glassie. "Building in Wood in the Eastern United States: A Time-Place Perspective." In Thomas J. Schlereth, ed., Material Culture Studies in America. Nashville, Tenn.: AASLH Press, 1982.

Pessen, Edward. The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Weslager, C. A. The Log Cabin in America: From Pioneer Days to the Present. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Alvin F.Harlow

ShelbyShapiro

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log cabin

log cabin or log house, style of home typical of the American pioneer on the Western frontier of the United States in the great westward expansion after 1765. It was constructed with few tools, usually an axe or an adz and an auger. All the fastenings were of wood. The log walls were chinked with mud to make them reasonably impervious to the wind. There was no glass, and greased paper might be used across window openings to let some light through. The shutters and doors were fastened on with wooden pegs. There was usually only one door. When the ridgepole of the roof was put in place, roughly hewn flat slabs were laid for a roof. Frequently there was no floor; if there was, it was usually of puncheons, logs split in half, placed with the flat sides up. The furniture was very often roughly made with the same tools that were used in making the house. All were of crude but efficient workmanship. In settlements where Native American attacks were feared the log houses were sometimes placed to form a protected rectangle. The blockhouse on the Western frontier was often made of logs. Log cabins were frequently built by community enterprise, a "house-raising" being an occasion for entertainment as well as work.

Log houses were unknown to Native Americans, and the first English settlers did not build them. They are known in some countries of Europe, especially Scandinavia, Germany, and Switzerland, and it is a generally accepted hypothesis that they were introduced in America by Swedish settlers on the Delaware in 1638. The log cabin was later adopted by the other settlers in America, and by the end of the 18th cent. at the latest the log house was the typical backwoods dwelling. It was universally used by settlers in the West until they reached the Great Plains, when the sod house appeared as the customary dwelling. Reappearing in the Rockies, the log house became a symbol of the frontier. In the late 20th cent. the log house experienced a minor resurgence in the United States, but the contemporary "log home" bears little resemblance to its colonial and frontier predecessors. The modern version is typically constructed from a kit that contains machine-notched and preservative-treated log-shaped lumber using contemporary building techiques and materials.

See H. R. Shurtleff, The Log Cabin Myth (1939, repr. 1967); C. A. Weslager, Log Cabin in America (1969).

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