Finnish Cottage Tradition
The origin of log structure is uncertain. It is probable that it began in northern Europe sometime in Bronze Age (c. 3,500 B.C.). By time Europeans began to settle in America, there was a long tradition of using logs for houses, barns, and other outbuildings in Scandinavian countries, Germany, and Northern Russia. These regions had vast stands of softwood timber that could easily be worked with simple hand tools. According to C. A. Weslager, whose book on log cabins is considered a classic, Finns, as well as Swedes, had a "close attunement" with forests, and both groups had well-developed forest industries. Weslager goes on to say:
The Finns were accomplished in building several forms of log housing, having different methods of corner timbering, and they utilized both round and hewn logs. Their log building had undergone an evolutionary process from crude "pirtii"...a small gabled-roof cabin of round logs with an opening in roof to vent smoke, to more sophisticated squared logs with interlocking double-notch joints, timber extending beyond corners. Log saunas or bathhouses of this type are still found in rural Finland.
When Finns and Swedes began to arrive in New Sweden (along both banks of Delaware River into modern Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland), they brought their knowledge of such wood construction with them. So did later immigrants from Germany. The Scots, Irish, and Scots-Irish had no tradition of building with logs, but they quickly adopted technique. The log cabin suited early settlers and later pioneers. It would have been nearly impossible to carry building materials across ocean in small sailing ships of time. It would have been equally difficult to transport building materials on horseback or even in wagons or river barges pioneers used to cross mountains and valleys in their search for their own land. So, wherever there were forested areas, log cabin became preferred type of initial dwelling. Log cabins did not even need nails or spikes to hold them together. Until 19th century nails were made by hand by blacksmiths, which meant they were quite expensive, and like lumber, they were also heavy.
Log cabins were relatively easy to build. Weslager reports that a record was set by three men who cut down trees, trimmed them, dragged logs to building site, notched logs, and built a one-room cabin with chimney and fireplace in two days. For most people it took a bit longer, but it was possible for a man working alone to build a cabin in one to two weeks. However, a man alone faced some problems. Because it is physically difficult to lift a heavy log above one's head, most men could build cabins only six to eight logs high. With help, it was possible to build several logs higher--even two-story log houses were possible. First, skids of two logs were placed against wall at an angle to serve as an inclined plane. Then forked sticks or ropes were used to position logs.
Most log cabins had a single room, or "pen," some 12 to 16 feet square. There was one door, and usually no windows. If windows were cut into walls, animal skins or boards fixed to slide across openings were used. Some builders used paper greased with animal fat, which made it both translucent and waterproof. Most log cabin builders placed fireplace at one end of cabin and built chimney of wattle. Stone or clay was used for hearth and interior of fireplace. As these were not very safe constructions, later builders used brick or stone if they could be obtained. Fireplaces provided warmth, light, and fuel for cooking. Back bars and cranes made of forged iron were used to hold cooking pots. Not until 1840s were cast-iron ranges available that would burn wood or coal, so cooking over a fireplace did not seem a hardship.