Log Cabin

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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.


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