This cabin looks like a set of Lincoln Logs, but it actually predates that toy by several decades. Although we’re missing the original box so we can’t be sure, this is almost certainly a Log Cabin Playhouse invented by Joel Ellis in the 1860s. (Lincoln Logs were introduced by John Lloyd Wright in 1916.) The principle is the same: interlocking sticks. The end product is a nice big play house (each side is 17 3/4″ long) with metal doors and a removable roof. Ours is missing one shutter/door and one roof panel (and when the house is finished, we have 18 logs left over . . . ?), the logs appear to have been repainted at least once, a few notched ends are broken, the metal prongs that support the door openings are bent, and there are pencil marks, sticker remnants and evidence of repair on the roof – in other words, this toy saw a lot of hard use over the years.

The log cabin came from the Smith home, in Rockville. Edwin Smith, an astronomer, and his wife Lucy built a summer home in Rockville in 1890 (well, Rockville builder Edwin West built it, but you see what I mean) and soon moved their family there full-time. The 16 room house at 108 Forest Avenue was home to Edwin and Lucy, Lucy’s mother Cornelia Black, the six Smith children, and a few servants. Mr. Smith built an observatory in the backyard (in addition to his more famous building, the Gaithersburg Latitude Observatory). The house is still standing, and still owned by the family.

The Smith home, circa 1900 (with two likely log cabin builders standing in the gate). Donated by Miss Lucy Smith.

When the toy was donated to us (by a neighbor), it was associated with Miss Lucy Neville Smith, daughter of Edwin and Lucy, who lived in the family home (along with various nieces/nephews and great-nieces/nephews) until her death in 1980 at the age 91. Miss Smith was well-known in Rockville, so it’s natural that the donor should describe the artifact as coming from “Lucy Smith’s home,” believing it to be from Lucy’s generation. However I suspect this toy, made in the 1860s or 1870s, originally belonged to one of her parents (Edwin was born in 1850, Lucy Senior in 1862) before being played with by their six kids (and those kids’ friends), and then grandkids and great-grandkids in their turn. It’s easy (for me) to imagine a young future-astronomer enjoying a construction toy like this, but it could just as easily have belonged to Lucy Senior; after all, the original packaging shows a little girl playing with her log house. At any rate, the wear and tear on the toy would seem to indicate that this was a stand-by toy, kept at the ready for any kids on hand, in the house for many years.

Usually, I can either use an existing photo of the weekly artifact or just take a new photo with relative speed. (Maybe that’s why my photos are usually terrible.) This week’s photo shoot required a little more effort! Thankfully I was able to call on our high school intern, Maria, for assistance in putting the Log Cabin Playhouse together. We’ve had enthusiastic interns before, but Maria might win the prize for Most Excited About Getting to See and Handle Historic Artifacts and Documents (didn’t know there was a prize for that, did you?). This is totally fabulous for us because not only do we have a willing helper, we (or at least I) have a reminder that it IS really exciting to get to see and handle historic artifacts. I wouldn’t describe myself as jaded, but I have been doing this for 11 years, and some of the awe has worn off. It’s fun to bring the awe back by introducing someone new to the joys of opening up a box and finding a 150 year old toy inside.

Come on in!

P.S. An interesting article on the development of construction toys (and the first clue I had in finding out the origins of our log cabin) can be found here.