How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol

iStock
iStock

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.”

The Question that Baffled Britain's High Court: Are Pringles Chips?

iStock/eskaylim
iStock/eskaylim

Are Pringles potato chips? From 2007 to 2009, that question plagued judges at three different levels of the British judiciary, leading to a series of head-scratchingly comical legal proceedings. The stakes, however, were nothing but serious: The ruling put hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The question revolved around Britain’s value-added tax, or VAT. According to the 1994 VAT Act, any product that is “wholly, or substantially wholly, made from the potato” was subject to a 17.5 percent tax. In 2007, Britain’s VAT and Duties Tribunal determined that Pringles fell under the tax’s umbrella—and demanded the chipman payeth.

Procter & Gamble, who owned Pringles at the time, vehemently disagreed. They argued that Pringles were only 42 percent potato flour, with the rest mostly a slurry of wheat starch, corn and rice flour, and vegetable oil. The snack food, they said, could not be classified as a potato chip because, unlike a real potato chip, its overall contents and shape were “not found in nature.”

In addition to being unappetizing, this argument was a marked shift from the company's original position. When the snack first hit shelves in the mid-1960s, Pringles were proudly marketed as “potato chips.” (More specifically, as newfangled potato chips.) They did this despite reported complaints from competing chip-makers, who argued that the snack food—which is cooked from a thin, mashed potato-like dough—should be classified differently.

But now that millions of dollars were on the line, Procter & Gamble’s lawyers wholeheartedly embraced Pringles's unique place as a “not-really-a-chip” chip. The VAT and Duties Tribunal, however, didn’t buy it. In a decision that sounds more like a Zen kōan, the tax masters argued that Pringles were chips because they were “made from potato flour in the sense that one cannot say that it is not made from potato flour.”

To that, the British High Court of Justice basically replied: Wow, that's confusing! Now, excuse us, we would like to top it.

The following year, the High Court stepped in and reversed the Tribunal's decision. First, the Court argued that Pringles were more akin to a cake or bread than a chip. (Who, of course, can forget their first birthday Pringle?) Furthermore, the Court declared that a Pringle—which we should emphasize is, in fact, mostly made from potatoes—was not “made from the potato." Their reasoning invoked Greek metaphysics, claiming that Pringles did not possess the required amount of (and this is their word) “potatoness.”

The controversy didn’t end there. In 2009, the case moved up another judicial wrung, this time to Britain’s Supreme Court of Judicature. The lower court's metaphysical arguments about "potatoness" were enough to make Aristotle's brain hurt, the justices moaned. They criticized the previous ruling for its “overelaborate, almost mind-numbing legal analysis” and dubbed the topic at hand a “short practical question calling for a short practical answer.”

Procter & Gamble’s lawyers bore down anyway. They claimed that a product made from “a number of significant ingredients ... cannot be said to be ‘made from’ one of them.” Lord Justice Jacob called this argument hogwash. If that were true, he argued, then “a marmalade made using both oranges and grapefruit would be made of neither—a nonsense conclusion."

After working itself in and out of semantic pretzels, the Court said the easiest solution to Chipgate was to appeal to a hypothetical child: If you asked an 8-year-old to explain what a Pringle was, what would he or she say?

The question of a Pringle’s identity, the Court argued, “would probably be answered in a more relevant and sensible way by a child consumer than by a food scientist or a culinary pedant.”

In other words, a chip is a chip is a chip—Pringles among them. With that, Procter & Gamble had to pay $160 million in taxes.

Though common sense prevailed, it doesn’t always end that way: Around the time of the great Pringle debate, the state of Oklahoma was busy confidently declaring watermelon a vegetable.

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1932, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. HE HAD A FRONT-ROW SEAT TO RENAISSANCE POWER STRUGGLES.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. HE WROTE THE PRINCE TO REGAIN LOST STATUS.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. HE COMPARED THE NEED FOR LOVE TO THE VALUE OF FEAR.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. THE PRINCE’S RUTHLESSNESS MADE IT NOTORIOUS.

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF/a>], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. SHAKESPEARE CALLED VILLAINS “MACHIAVELS.”

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. THE PRINCE WAS BANNED BY THE POPE.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul VI established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. HE COLLABORATED WITH LEONARDO DA VINCI.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. HE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN A JUST GOVERNMENT.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER