How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol

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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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