How the Cabin Became a Midwest Icon
The author of a book about cabins gives a pine-scented, s’more-stickied, plaid-clad introduction to the history, culture and style of a Midwest icon.
You don't need to read the label to know what a fancy cabin-scented candle smells like. Just step into your memories: Top notes of woodsmoke and pine. Secondary layers of marshmallow, bacon and summer rain. It's the aroma baked into childhood readings of Little House in the Big Woods, into summer camp, into lakeside vacations and even into daydreaming on Instagram, where #cabinlove has 150,000 posts.
But here's what you might not know. Early Americans hated cabins. Yes, really. Swedish colonists built the first ones in the Delaware Valley in 1638. The model-a one- or two-room structure made of felled trees-was adopted by Germans, Scotch-Irish and other new arrivals. But because cabins were linked to poverty and immigration, they were widely derided. In 1775, for example, one writer described cabins as "gloomy to the sight" and "offensive to the smell." (Clearly he'd never tried the candle.) Even Benjamin Franklin, the "Prophet of Tolerance," described cabin dwellers as "poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant." Back then, no one escaped to the cabin. You escaped from it-or at least covered it in clapboard.
Then something happened: the Midwest. As Americans moved westward in the 1800s, cabins became the bedrock architecture of entirely new communities. From Ohio to the Dakotas, Michigan to Missouri, smatterings of cabins grew into thriving cities. Some of those early cornerstones survive today; you can still see the 1804 Beers Cabin in Columbus, Ohio, or dine in the 1825 Log Inn restaurant outside Evansville, Indiana.
More than just homes, cabins became community hubs. They were polling places, post offices, general stores and even churches. As stories of Midwest success trickled back east, cabins became … cool. No longer a source of shame, they were sparks for American progress, vehicles for national growth.
Soon everyone wanted a piece of the cabin. Thomas Cole cast one in heavenly light in his widely reproduced 1826 painting Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake, Kentucky. Ohioan William Henry Harrison aided his run to the White House in 1840 by claiming to live in a log cabin. (Few people knew he actually lived in a mansion, and those who did found the myth too attractive to tarnish.) Magazines and newspapers spread tales of cabin heroics. Poems sang the structure's praises. People mailed cabin-theme postcards. The cabin even time traveled: In John Palfrey's 1860 colonial history, he claimed that cabins were built the first winter in Jamestown-funny, since we know cabins actually arrived with Swedes about 30 years later. Once dismissed as the home of the downtrodden, the cabin had been reborn as the imagined cradle of our nation. Ben Franklin and co.'s powdered wigs would be blown.
Even as industrialism forever altered life and landscape in the late 1800s, the cabin endured-not as the hub of everyday life, but as a cocoon to escape it. Tucked along lakes and clustered near new national parks, vacation cabins flourished in the early 20th century. People wanted to get away from urban grit and smoke and reconnect with nature and a simpler time. In 1922, The Indianapolis Star excitedly wrote up one of these new resorts: "A whole row of real log cabins right in the center of Indiana-yes, cross my heart. … Most folks nowadays are willing to pay a little extra to live in the style of their forefathers."
It's not too hard to draw a line from that breathless account to the present. How many of us have splurged on a cabin getaway so we can ditch work and the 24-hour news cycle to cook dinner over an open fire and fall asleep with the windows open? (Or, at least, fantasized about it while cuddled under a Pendleton camp blanket watching Log Cabin Living on HGTV?)
In his 2015 memoir, Cabin Lessons, Minnesotan Spike Carlsen writes about the trials and triumphs of building a cabin on a cliff above Lake Superior. On paper, he admits, it makes no sense. More bills to pay. More pipes to fix. And he's only there a few weeks of the year. "But it's not just a thirty-day affair," he writes. "Knowing it's there helps us get through the other three hundred and thirty-five days. Knowing it's waiting for us with open arms makes a stressful workday a little calmer."
There's always a cabin waiting out there for you, too, easing your day just a little. It might be rustic or mod, waterside or wooded. It might be one you rent, or one you own. It might be one you book this summer, or one you dream of visiting someday. Or it might even just be your own living room, where buffalo plaid pillows and a just-right candle hold the power to carry you away-and bring you right home.
To learn more about the stories behind these Instagrammers' cabin shots, click here.