From its European origins from the 35th Century BCE up to its elevation to icon status in Americana, the log cabin – simple in design, humble in appearance, and steadfast in many senses of the word and in where it belongs in history – has quite the story to tell. There’s plenty to go through – centuries, in fact – but let’s just look at four of some of the more interesting facts from the history of log cabins.
Fact 1: Some Medieval Log Cabins Were Practically Mobile Homes
During medieval times, there was a type of log cabin that rose in popularity in regions such as Barbados: The Chattel house. Chattel houses were generally purchased by the working class, built entirely out of wood and were designed to be moved from one property to another. As such, these were assembled without nails, and could thus be easily disassembled, moved to another location, and then reassembled as necessary. Today, Chattel houses – with a modern twist or two – remain in use in Barbados, as well as in surrounding countries within the Americas, such as Trinidad, the British Virgin Islands, and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Fact 2: Some Early Log Cabins Use Paper Windows
When the Finns and Swedes arrived in America, they brought with them the knowledge and skills that they used to construct log cabins as they were, traditionally. These early log cabins were born out practicality and used materials available on location. Most were single-room affairs 12-16 feet square, with one door, and no windows. In cases where there were windows, some builders used paper greased with animal fat, which made these translucent and waterproof. Other materials used also included animal skins or boards that could be slid across the openings.
Fact 3: The Log Cabin Was Used as a Political Symbol in America
Though no longer used as such in modern American politics, the log cabin was an important symbol during the earlier part of the political history of the United States. Wikipedia notes:
The log cabin has been a symbol of humble origins in US politics since the early 19th century. Seven United States Presidents were born in log cabins, including Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and James Buchanan. Although William Henry Harrison was not one of them, he and the Whigs during the 1840 presidential election were the first to use a log cabin as a symbol to show North Americans that he was a man of the people. Other candidates followed Harrison’s example, making the idea of a log cabin—and, more generally, a non-wealthy background—a recurring theme in campaign biographies.
More than a century after Harrison, Adlai Stevenson acknowledged: “I wasn’t born in a log cabin. I didn’t work my way through school nor did I rise from rags to riches, and there’s no use trying to pretend I did.” Stevenson lost the 1952 presidential election in a landslide to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
FACT 4: The Great Depression May Have Saved the Log Cabin from Extinction
The log cabin was a staple of frontier life and was favored as such due to its practicality. As America began to get settled and develop further as a nation, the frontiers slowly disappeared, and it was under these circumstances that the log cabin was on the edge of being forgotten, slowly being relegated to being just an artifact of an era transitioning into another one. Then, the Great Depression happened. The U.S. National Park Service notes:
Another factor that kept the tradition of log building alive was the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to build thousands of log structures throughout the national forests and parks. Had it not been for these the log cabin might have disappeared, but because people saw the log structures and liked what they saw, many began to build modern log cabins and log houses. These homes seemed to represent all that a family could want: a sturdy shelter from the elements and a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. The log cabin remains a popular building style.
Today, the log cabin’s larger and more intricately-designed and built modern successors dot the north American continent and serve as getaways and retreats for those looking from a break from urban living, along with those trying to get a bit closer to a more wound-down way of life, even if just for a few days or weeks, while some have decided to make the change a permanent one.
Traditional aesthetics combined with modern methods of design and building have resulted in beautiful homes that retain the charm and feel of log cabins, while providing more comfortable, energy efficient versions of their predecessors. For some people, though, that these homes just plain look good is more than reason enough, and can anyone really fault them for that?
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About the Author: Andre Salvatierra is a freelance writer who loves culture, technology, well-designed things, and great experiences. You can find him on Medium and Twitter.