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cabin / log house

A small cottage; a hut or small house. — Webster, 1882

The house was larger than the one we left on the prairie. It was made of logs, but there were three rooms besides the attic. There were lots of windows and the house was very comfortable and cozy set down among the hills in the Wisconsin woods. – Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl


Big Woods cabin, Pepin, Wisconsin, 4 interpretations

Hard to believe, but Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t use the word cabin at all her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, the manuscript for Little House in the Big Woods, or in the published Little House in the Big Woods, when one of the cultural icons most closely associated with Wilder is – after the bonnet, perhaps – the log cabin. (The word cabin is only used once in Little House on the Prairie; can you find it?)

Clearly, Wilder thought of her abode as a house; she called it a snug house, cosy house, comfortable house… Little House. When researching about cat-holes in cabin doors, I took a close look at book illustrations and I realized something: Laura Ingalls Wilder painted pictures when she wrote, yes, but the artists who illustrated the “ittle House books over the years have “painted” quite different “pictures” based on those words.

The little house in the big woods is described in quite basic terms. There is a large attic upstairs, and there are stairs up to it. Downstairs, there is a big room and a small room. The bedroom has a window that closes with a wooden shutter, and the big room has two windows with glass panes. There are two doors, a front door and a back door. There is a fireplace. We are never told where the windows, doors, and fireplace are located on the exterior, how high the walls are, or if the fireplace is of brick or stone.

Each illustrator painted their own pictures from Laura’s words, and while they surely had other visuals to go by – Garth Williams visited the sites, after all – they had to stay true to what Laura wrote. Helen Sewell (who included a cat-hole in the door on her dust-jacket, by the way; see top middle picture above) drew her cabin with doors and windows at each end of the cabin, with glass-paned windows also at each end, suggesting that one side wall had the shuttered bedroom window in it. The back door – the door with no cat-hole – is to the side of the fireplace at one end, and the fireplace is of made of large rocks.

Sewell’s drawing for the cover of Big Woods, however, shows a centered fireplace. Garth Williams drew his Big Woods cabin (top left) with the fireplace at one end and a window at the other, a window that appears to have panes and a shutter. The fireplace is made of smaller rocks. The front door has a window on one side and a lean-to on the other. Yet when Williams drew the same Pepin cabin for the “saying good-bye” chapter of Little House on the Prairie, the chimney is clearly at the same end as earlier, but there is no lean-to and there are now two windows on that wall, one of which could have been inside the missing lean-to.

Back of Pepin cabin

The photos at top and bottom right of the top picture are of the first replica cabin on the Big Woods property (top) and the current cabin (bottom). The back of the current cabin is shown above. Both cabins are similar, and both were obviously patterned after Garth Williams’ illustrations. There is no back door in the replica cabin, but there is an additional window. It’s a moving experience to visit one of Laura’s homesites for the first time and see how Laura’s “word pictures” measure up to those we paint in our own mind’s eye when reading. It’s hard today to think of those years when readers had only the Sewell & Boyle drawings to refer to, and it’s a little sad to think about the few editions of the Little House books out there that contain no illustrations or photographs whatsoever, especially if our little houses are so very different from Laura’s. There are so many ways of seeing things!

Did you carefully read the quote from Pioneer Girl above? Laura wrote that there were three rooms downstairs. What do you think the third room was? And how many windows are “lots”?


cabin (FB 19; LHP 19; THGY 13)
     house, little log (BW 1-2, 4; FB 6; LHP 1, 26; BPC 1; SSL 1; PG)