Few traditional quilt patterns both represent the American frontier and lend themselves to modern interpretations like log cabin quilts. And for a pattern many associate with Honest Abe, few have as many stories and legends attached to their history.
Log cabin quilts first popped into print during the Civil War. The design of a square framed by rectangular “logs” became a late 19th-century fad, so popular that county fairs created categories just for log cabins. Written references go back to 1863 when a Cleveland quiltmaker won special commendation for a “log cabin quilt” at the fall Ohio State Fair. In December of that same year, a fundraising bazaar for Union soldiers in Cincinnati displayed at least three silk log cabins.
The name may be political, likely related to Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign linking him to Kentucky rural roots. William Henry Harrison also campaigned as a log cabin candidate and quilts remain with log cabin images from his 1840 presidency, but these earlier quilts feature appliqued buildings rather than abstract design.
Few early log cabins with inked or embroidered dates survive to tell us what those Civil War-era quilts might have looked like. One notable exception is an 1864 quilt sold at a Philadelphia fair for soldiers’ aid. President Lincoln, Clara Barton and several generals signed white silk centers framed by one layer of logs. Is this basic square-in-a-square design a log cabin? No pattern name is attached to the quilt, now in the collection of the National Park Service’s Ford’s Theatre Museum.
The earliest date I’ve yet seen on a quilt we’d all call a log cabin is 1874, embroidered on a Sunshine and Shadow design in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Dark and light dress fabrics, silks and wools came from someone’s fashionable sewing scraps. Combination fabrics woven of silk, cotton and wool yarns were in vogue through the middle of the 19th century when cotton prints were not considered proper for visiting dress or street wear. Silk plus wool (challis) or wool plus cotton made material light enough to print with a pattern, soft enough for a flattering drape and cool enough for summer wear. Like much of fashion, these mixed fabrics were called by a French name, mousseline de laine, which means wool muslin. Most Americans simply called the wool/cotton material “delaine.”
Log cabins made the most of scrapbags full of mixed fabrics. Cotton calico makes a neat seam for an Irish Chain or Mariner’s Compass but silk satins and delaines stretch, slip and fray when pieced with a running stitch by hand or machine. The log cabin block was a successful experiment with the technique we call foundation piecing in which blocks backed by foundation squares support flimsy material. In 1889 one could find published instructions for such a block. “An excellent way to use up delaine or merino [wool] dresses which are partly worn,” they read.
Twentieth-century writing attaches a few myths to log cabin history. We hear the center was traditionally red to symbolize the cabin hearth. Many vintage quilts do have red centers but black was more important in the early decades. An 1885 how-to said: “In the center baste a 2″ square of black velvet, though this need not necessarily be black as very pretty ones are made with this center piece in other colors.”
Stories also circulate that log cabins hung on clotheslines alerted runaway slaves to a safe house on the Underground Railroad. The design’s wartime origins indicate the tale as fabrication rather than fact. By 1863—the date of the earliest-known written reference to log cabin quilts mentioned above—escapees typically walked to freedom into a Union Army camp identified by a Union flag.
About 1875 a “calico craze” inspired a new fashion for cotton log cabins contrasting dark prints and light shirtings. Foundation backings were no longer necessary and by the beginning of the 20th century quiltmakers seamed logs with a conventional running stitch. Log cabin style kept pace as color and fabric fashions changed. Browns were the look in the 1870s and ’80s, replaced by grays, blacks and blues in the 1890–1910 decades. Modern pastels shook up trends about 1930; by then log cabins were considered old-fashioned. Not many were made in the mid-20th century until interest in geometrical designs inspired a new generation in the 1970s.
Barbara Brackman is a quilt historian who writes about pattern and fabric in her blog Material Culture BarbaraBrackman.blogspot.com.