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.”

15 Uplifting Facts About the Wright Brothers

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before they built the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air, and controllable aircraft, Wilbur and Orville Wright were two ordinary brothers from the Midwest who possessed nothing more than natural talent, ambition, and imagination. In honor of National Aviation Day, here are 15 uplifting facts about the siblings who made human flight possible.

1. A TOY PIQUED THEIR PASSION.

From an early age, Wilbur and Orville Wright were fascinated by flight. They attribute their interest in aviation to a small helicopter toy their father brought back from his travels in France. Fashioned from a stick, two propellers, and rubber bands, the toy was crudely made. Nevertheless, it galvanized their quest to someday make their very own flying machine.

2. THEIR GENIUS WAS GENETIC.

While they were inspired by their father’s toy, the Wright brothers inherited their mechanical savvy from their mother, Susan Koerner Wright. She could reportedly make anything, be it a sled or another toy, by hand.

3. THEY WERE PROUD MIDWESTERNERS.

The Wright brothers spent their formative years in Dayton, Ohio. Later in life, Wilbur said his advice for those seeking success would be to “pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

4. THEY NEVER GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL.

While the Wright brothers were undoubtedly bright, neither of them ever earned his high school diploma. Wilbur became reclusive after suffering a bad hockey injury, and Orville dropped out of school.

5. THEY ONCE PUBLISHED A NEWSPAPER.

Before they were inventors, the Wright brothers were newspaper publishers. When he was 15 years old, Orville launched his own print shop from behind his house and he and Wilber began publishing The West Side News, a small-town neighborhood paper. It eventually became profitable, and Orville moved the fledgling publication to a rented space downtown. In due time, Orville and Wilbur ceased producing The West Side News—which they’d renamed The Evening Item—to focus on other projects.

6. THEY MADE A FORAY INTO THE BICYCLE BUSINESS.

One of these projects was a bike store called the Wright Cycle Company, where Wilbur and Orville fixed clients’ bicycles and sold their own designs. The fledgling business grew into a profitable enterprise, which eventually helped the Wright brothers fund their flight designs.

7. THEY WERE AUTODIDACTS.

The Wright brothers’ lifelong interest in flight peaked after they witnessed a successive series of aeronautical milestones: the gliding flights of German aviator Otto Lilienthal, the flying of an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and the glider test flights of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute. By 1899, Wilbur sat down and wrote to the Smithsonian, asking them to send him literature on aeronatics. He was convinced, he wrote, “that human flight is possible and practical.” Once he received the books, he and Orville began studying the science of flight.

8. THEY CHOSE TO FLY IN KITTY HAWK BECAUSE IT PROVIDED WIND, SOFT SAND, AND PRIVACY.

The Wright brothers began building prototypes and eventually traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1902 to test a full-size, two-winged glider with a moveable rudder. They chose this location thanks in part to their correspondence with Octave Chanute, who advised them in a letter to select a windy place with soft grounds. It was also private, which allowed them to launch their aircrafts with little public interference.

9. THEY ACHIEVED FOUR SUCCESSFUL FLIGHTS WITH THEIR FIRST AIRPLANE DESIGN.

The Wright brothers started testing various wing designs and spent the next few years perfecting their evolving vision for a heavier-than-air flying machine. In the winter of 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk with their final model, the 1903 Wright Flyer. On December 17, they finally achieved a milestone: four brief flights, one of which lasted for 59 seconds and reached 852 feet.

10. THE 1903 WRIGHT FLYER NEVER TOOK TO THE SKIES AGAIN…

Before the brothers could embark on their final flight, a heavy wind caused the plane to flip several times. Because of the resulting damage, it never flew again. It eventually found a permanent home in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum—even though Orville originally refused to donate it to the institution because it claimed that Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s own aircraft experiment was the first machine capable of sustained free flight.

11. …BUT A PIECE OF IT DID GO TO THE MOON.

An astronaut paid homage to the Wright brothers by carrying both a swatch of fabric from the 1903 Flyer’s left wing and a piece of its wooden propeller inside his spacesuit.

12. THE PRESS INITIALLY IGNORED THE KITTY HAWK FLIGHTS.

Despite their monumental achievement, the Dayton Journal didn’t think the Wright brothers’ short flights were important enough to cover. The Virginia Pilot ended up catching wind of the story, however, and they printed an error-ridden account that was picked up by several other papers. Eventually, the Dayton Journal wrote up an official—and accurate—story.

13. THE BROTHERS SHARED A CLOSE BOND...

Although the Wright brothers weren’t twins, they certainly lived like they were. They worked side by side six days a week, and shared the same residence, meals, and bank account. They also enjoyed mutual interests, like music and cooking. Neither brother ever married, either. Orville said it was Wilbur’s job, as the older sibling, to get hitched first. Meanwhile, Wilbur said he “had no time for a wife.” In any case, the two became successful businessmen, scoring aviation contracts both domestically and abroad.

14. …BUT WERE OPPOSITES IN MANY WAYS.

Although they were much alike, each Wright brother was his own person. As the older brother, Wilbur was more serious and taciturn. He possessed a phenomenal memory, and was generally consumed by his thoughts. Meanwhile, Orville was positive, upbeat, and talkative, although very bashful in public. While Wilbur spearheaded the brothers’ business endeavors, they wouldn’t have been possible without Orville’s mechanical—and entrepreneurial—savvy.

15. OHIO AND NORTH CAROLINA FIGHT OVER THEIR LEGACY.

Since the Wright brothers split their experiments between Ohio and North Carolina, both states claim their accomplishments as their own. Ohio calls itself the "Birthplace of Aviation,” although the nickname also stems from the fact that two famed astronauts hail from there as well. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s license plates are emblazoned with the words “First In Flight.”

This article originally ran in 2015.

12 Facts About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was never able to cast a vote legally, though she helped secure that right for women across America. As the philosopher of the women’s rights movement in 19th-century America, she expressed what she felt regardless of what others might think. Read on for more facts about one of the most important women in history.

1. HER FATHER WISHED SHE HAD BEEN A BOY.

Cady Stanton’s father, Daniel Cady, served in Congress and the New York State Assembly, and was a New York Supreme Court judge. He and his wife Margaret had 11 children; five daughters, including Elizabeth, and one son would survive to adulthood. When her brother Eleazar died at age 20, Elizabeth’s father allegedly said to her, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!”

That may have been her father’s way of lamenting the hardships she would suffer as a woman, but Elizabeth responded by throwing herself into studying Greek, chess, and horse riding, vowing “to make her father happy by being all a son could have been,” Lori D. Ginzberg writes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. Daniel Cady did encourage his bright and self-confident daughter when she was upset that laws could not help one of his female clients: “When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech, you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators,” he told her. “If you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter.”

2. A PREACHER ACTUALLY SCARED THE BEJESUS OUT OF HER.

Even as a young person, Elizabeth bristled against her family’s Presbyterian beliefs. In 1831, as a required part of her lessons at the Troy Female Seminary, she attended a revival at which noted evangelist Charles Grandison Finney spoke. She found his ideas about sin so alarming that she had to take time off from school to recover. Ultimately, she rejected organized Christianity’s dependence on fear, and later came to view religion as at odds with her work in the feminist movement.

3. SHE SPENT HER HONEYMOON AT AN ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION.

In 1840, Elizabeth married Henry Stanton, a prominent abolitionist who was active in the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After the wedding, the new couple headed to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where Henry was a delegate and Elizabeth was forced with other female attendees into the back of the lecture hall [PDF]. There she met feminist Lucretia Mott, who shared her support for women’s and African Americans' rights.

4. CADY STANTON ATTENDED AN EPIC TEA PARTY …

When you think of an important tea party, the Boston event probably springs to mind—but there was at least one other tea-related confab that was just as historic.

On July 9, 1848, Cady Stanton and three other women—Lucretia Mott, her sister Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock—were invited to the Waterloo, New York home of Jane Hunt, a wealthy Quaker dedicated to social reform. During the gathering, they discussed how women weren’t allowed to vote or own property and why the Quaker religion avoided getting involved with women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. The decision to create an organized meeting to advocate women’s equality was decided right then and there, though who came up with the idea is not known.

5. ... WHICH LED TO THE FIRST WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION IN AMERICA.

Cady Stanton, Mott, and their colleagues announced “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Ten days after the tea party, more than 300 people attended the event (also known as the Seneca Falls convention). The first day, July 19, was planned as an all-women discussion, and July 20 was open to the public.

Stanton wrote and read a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” for the occasion, a discourse based on the Declaration of Independence describing the oppression of women and the rights to which they were entitled. It began with these famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence had almost identical wording except for the “and women” part.) Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the declaration. Seneca Falls launched annual conventions to advocate women’s rights, and was the start of the long battle that eventually earned women the right to vote.

6. CADY STANTON AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY WERE BFFS.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and they quickly became an unstoppable pair. In their shared goal of achieving women’s equality, Anthony handled the campaigning and speeches, while Cady Stanton did the lion’s share of the writing from her home in Seneca Falls. While Anthony objected to Cady Stanton allowing her role as a mother to interfere with her reform work, she also helped her take care of the seven Stanton children. Cady Stanton said of Anthony:

“In the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains."

Together, they formed the anti-slavery Women’s Loyal National League and published the first three of six volumes of History of Woman Suffrage.

7. SHE OPPOSED THE 15th AMENDMENT.

Cady Stanton and Anthony also founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 in response to the proposed 15th Amendment. According to Ginzberg, feminists faced a choice after the Civil War, when Congress debated suffrage for emancipated slaves. “There was a battle among abolitionists—of which Stanton counted herself—between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans,” Ginzberg told NPR. “Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal human rights for all and—historians have argued about this ever since—not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men.” The 15th Amendment, giving men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870. Women did not end up achieving the franchise until 1920.

8. SHE RAN FOR CONGRESS.

Women could run for public office even though they couldn’t vote, a situation that Cady Stanton sought to challenge. She ran for the U.S. House of Representatives—the first woman to do so—as an independent representing New York in 1866. She knew that she was treading new ground when she announced she was running. “I have no political antecedents to recommend me to your support, but my creed is free speech, free press, free men, and free trade—the cardinal points of democracy,” she explained in a letter. She received only 24 votes of the 12,000 cast, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no women could vote—but her audacious campaign likely inspired others. Six years later Victoria Woodhull became the first female candidate for president. It wasn’t until 1916 that a woman, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to Congress.

9. SHE WROTE A BESTSELLING CRITIQUE OF CHRISTIANITY.

Her 1895 book The Woman’s Bible, which criticized the ways religion portrayed women as less than men, drove a wedge between Stanton and the women’s movement. Cady Stanton argued that the Bible taught “the subjection and degradation of woman” and that equality demanded a revision of its lessons. Anthony felt it was more important to welcome people of all religious beliefs into the fight for suffrage. Thanks to the controversy, the book became a bestseller.

10. SHE BELIEVED BIKES WOULD LIBERATE WOMEN.

As the 1970s feminist slogan goes, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” In Cady Stanton’s day, a bike made it so that a woman wouldn’t need a man, at least when it came to transportation. Biking had become popular by the 1890s, and was strongly associated with the modern woman of the latter part of the 19th century, liberated from stuffy social and marital expectations. At 80, Stanton told The American Wheelman magazine that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect [and] self-reliance,” eventually leading to women’s suffrage. Both she and Susan B. Anthony have been credited with saying “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.” They could see beyond the convenience of getting from point A to point B: Bikes symbolized a new freedom for women.

11. SHE TRIED TO DONATE HER BRAIN TO SCIENCE.

Cady Stanton died in 1902, just before turning 87. Susan B. Anthony was heartsick. “I am too crushed to speak,” she told The New York Times’s obituary writer.

But Cady Stanton had tried to ensure that she would still help women’s causes after her own death. Her friend Helen Gardener, a fellow suffragist, had convinced her to donate her brain to Cornell University so scientists would have an eminent female brain to compare with those of eminent men. Stanton had told her family of her plan, and Gardener announced her wishes publicly. Gardener said Cady Stanton “felt that a brain like hers would be useful for all time in the record it would give the world, for the first time—the scientific record of a thinker among women,” Kimberly A. Hamlin writes in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Cady Stanton’s family, however, refused to believe she had agreed to the plan, and the brain was buried with the rest of her in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

12. SHE WILL APPEAR ON THE $10 BILL IN 2020.

The 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote, celebrates its centennial in 2020. To commemorate the anniversary, a new $10 bill will be issued with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul on the back—the first time in more than 100 years that a female portrait has been featured on paper money. (Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front.) You can also expect to see Cady Stanton and Anthony memorialized in a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park that will be known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument. Amazingly, the suffrage pioneers are the first two women to be honored with statues in Central Park, and only the fourth and fifth American women represented by public statues in any NYC park.

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