The first log cabins are believed to have been built over 5000 years ago in Northern Europe during the Bronze Age. Easily constructed and versatile, it is known that they were well established by Roman times. They feature in the written works of a Roman architect, Vitruvius Pollio, who described their construction at Pontus. He explained that logs were laid over the top of each other and any gaps were filled with chippings and mud.
In many of the colder parts of Europe, such as Scandinavia and Germany, the log cabin became a popular building for both houses and outbuildings. The idea of building with logs crossed continents to North America when many of the early settlers in the colder and more mountainous areas used this technique of building.
These early log cabins were often built as a temporary dwelling until a more permanent structure could be built at which point they would be converted into an outbuilding.
Once sawmills and railroads made hewn timber easier to obtain, larger log homes could be designed and built as the main dwelling. Interestingly, the bark and outer timber of whole logs is more prone to decay than the timber in the middle of the log, so cutting the log helps to make it last longer.
Log cabins became a symbol of pioneer life on the frontier, and in many ways they came to typify the American Dream. Campaigning for the 1840 presidential election, William Henry Harrison adopted one of them as the main images of his campaign. Because the design was instantly recognisable and connected with the early settlers, Harrison was able to appeal to all sectors of society. Later, Abraham Lincoln was proud to say that he had been born in one which makes his first home probably the most famous log cabin of all time.
Although during the 20th century it became less common to construct them to live in, this was not the case in the previous century. It was the inspiration for a particular style of building in the Adirondack Park in New York State during the 19th century. A cross between the traditional log cabin and a Swiss chalet, communities developed in the Park where the style of building was used for churches, town halls and libraries as well as homes. The Adirondack style of architecture now has heritage status and a Society has been founded to preserve the buildings and share their history with a wider audience.
Today, throughout Europe, the log cabin is a common sight in gardens, often replacing traditional summerhouses and workshop sheds. It is also very popular for holiday accommodation.
It has come a long way from simple Bronze Age structures providing basic housing. Twenty-first century garden log cabins and holiday cabins are high quality and such buildings are seen throughout the UK. There are bound to be changes of use in years to come which will reflect society’s needs, but the log cabin has proved to be such a versatile building that its future is secure.