How Frank Lloyd Wright’s Son Invented Lincoln Logs, “America’s National Toy” (1916)

How many archi­tec­tur­al careers have been kin­dled by Lin­coln Logs? Since their inven­tion in the mid-1910s, these decep­tive­ly sim­ple wood­en build­ing blocks have enter­tained gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren, whichev­er pro­fes­sion they entered upon grow­ing up. I myself have fond mem­o­ries of play­ing with Lin­coln Logs, which, with about 70 years of his­to­ry already behind them, were a ven­er­a­ble play­time insti­tu­tion, not that I knew it at the time. I cer­tain­ly had no idea that they’d been invent­ed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright — nor, indeed, did I have any idea who Frank Lloyd Wright was. I just knew, as many kids did before me and many do still today, that they were fun to stack up into cab­ins, or at least cab­in-like shapes.

This endur­ing toy’s full ori­gin sto­ry is told in the Decades TV video above. When Wright designed his own fam­i­ly home in Oak Park, Illi­nois, he includ­ed a cus­tom play­room for his six chil­dren. Its stock of inno­v­a­tive toys includ­ed “geo­met­ric build­ing blocks devel­oped by Friedrich Froebel, the Ger­man edu­ca­tor who came up with the con­cept of kinder­garten.”

The spe­cial fas­ci­na­tion for these blocks exhib­it­ed by Wright’s sec­ond son John Lloyd Wright hint­ed at a con­flict of inter­ests to come: though John “began to feel that spir­it of being an archi­tect” in the play­room, says toy his­to­ri­an Steven Som­mers, “there was always a ten­sion between his father, who was an archi­tect, and his [own] love for build­ing toys that he’d begun to learn in that Froebel sys­tem of ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion.” The two inter­sect­ed when Wright fils assist­ed Wright père on one of the lat­ter’s most famous works, the Impe­r­i­al Hotel in Tokyo.

John Lloyd Wright took note of the inter­lock­ing tim­ber beams used to make the struc­ture “earth­quake-proof” — a design lat­er test­ed by 1923’s Great Kan­to Earth­quake, which left most of the city destroyed but the Impe­r­i­al Hotel stand­ing. By that time, the younger Wright had already act­ed on his inspi­ra­tion to invent the sim­i­lar­ly inter­lock­ing Lin­coln Logs (see patent draw­ing above), which quick­ly proved a hit on the mar­ket. Named after the six­teenth pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States and the log cab­in in which he’d grown up, the prod­uct tapped into Amer­i­can fron­tier nos­tal­gia even at its debut. In the cen­tu­ry since, Lin­coln Logs have sur­vived wartime mate­r­i­al rationing, the rise and fall of count­less toy trends, the buy­ing and sell­ing of par­ent com­pa­nies, a brief and unap­peal­ing late-60s attempt to make them out of plas­tic, and even the Impe­r­i­al Hotel itself.  For “Amer­i­ca’s nation­al toy,” struc­tur­al endurance and cul­tur­al endurance have gone togeth­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

12 Famous Frank Lloyd Wright Hous­es Offer Vir­tu­al Tours: Hol­ly­hock House, Tal­iesin West, Falling­wa­ter & More

Frank Lloyd Wright Cre­ates a List of the 10 Traits Every Aspir­ing Artist Needs

Frank Lloyd Wright Reflects on Cre­ativ­i­ty, Nature and Reli­gion in Rare 1957 Audio

The Mod­ernist Gas Sta­tions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe

The Frank Lloyd Wright Lego Set

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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