Lincoln Logs: Building Up an Image

Did you know that one of the most popular toys in the 20th century would not have existed if not for the 16th President of the United States? Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, saved the Union, and was known for his political ideology. So how did the president spark the creation of the famous Lincoln Logs play set?

Lincoln the rail splitter. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

John Lloyd Wright, son of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, came up with the idea for Lincoln Logs on a visit to Tokyo, Japan, with his father in 1916. As he observed construction of his father’s design for the Imperial Hotel, with its distinctive criss-crossed structural stacked beams, Wright was inspired to make a miniature model that could teach children the basics of construction and encourage imaginative play.

How does this relate to President Abraham Lincoln? While the design of the toy was important, its name was even more so. When Wright created the toy, the First World War was well underway, although U.S. forces were not yet fighting. Americans were encouraged to ration their spending and focus their consumption on American-made products. Soon after his 100th birthday in 1909, the name Abraham Lincoln, more than any other American hero, called to mind America’s national ideals of freedom, perseverance and morality—and of course Lincoln was also born in a well-constructed stacked-beam log cabin!

With its practicality, imaginative use and iconic brand, Lincoln Logs became a hit and remain so today. The toys’ popularity peaked during the 1950s when they were among the first toys highlighted with television advertising. Lincoln Logs were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999, and to date, more than 100 million sets have been sold worldwide. The third floor of the Center for Education and Leadership features an original set of Lincoln Logs in the pop culture exhibit case, alongside other examples of the pop culture appropriation of Lincoln’s image.

Glass photographic negative of Abraham Lincoln's Kentucky log cabin. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Over the course of 150 years, Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, has become Abraham Lincoln, iconic embodiment of honesty and equality. Just as Lincoln Logs have engaged generations of kids as toys that “typify the spirit of America,” the story of Lincoln’s humble log-cabin beginnings and his rise to the presidency is an inspiration to many. Whether exemplified through these childhood toys, or via the study of his leadership principles, Lincoln’s legacy is very much alive in our minds and on the Ford’s Theatre campus.

To learn more about Abraham Lincoln’s role in pop culture, be sure to take a tour of the historic Ford’s Theatre and the Center for Education and Leadership.

Sydney Ouellette is a Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communications Intern and undergraduate student at American University, where she is pursuing Business Administration, with a focus in Arts Management. Born and raised in New Hampshire, she is passionate about the role that art plays in today’s culture, as well as discovering new means of furthering communication and conversation about theater and the arts.