A Colorized Look at the Humble Origins of Lincoln Logs

October 7, 2022

If you grew up playing with Lincoln Logs, then you know that this was a toy that inspired creativity and critical thinking. Long before electronic toys and video games, children could spend hours designing and building unique structures and setting up towns. 

A colorized photo of a young boy and his Lincoln Logs in the 1950s. (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

They may seem like a simple toy, but Lincoln Longs have a long and interesting history that included the sixteenth president of the United States, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Let’s see how this is all connected to the Lincoln Logs.

Frank Lloyd Wright … Well Actually, His Son

The early beginnings of Lincoln Logs can be traced back to 1916. That is when twenty-something John Lloyd Wright, the second son of Frank Lloyd Wright, decided to get serious with his life. An angsty teen, John was bitter and angry when, in 1909, his famous architect father, Frank Lloyd Wright, abandoned the family to live with his mistress. John got into the University of Wisconsin but dropped out to join his older brother, first in Portland, Oregon, and then in San Diego, California. John took a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs doing all sorts of odd work, including selling posters and ironing trousers. Broke, depressed, and directionless, he finally decided to reconcile with his estranged father and maybe start on a path to become an architect, too. 

Training in Japan

Lincoln Logs have become an American classic. (Photo by David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Now reunited with his father and training with him to be an architect, John Lloyd Wright joined his father in Japan from 1916 through 1917. At this time, Frank Lloyd Wright was working on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. On the construction site, John was awed by the innovative interlocking beams that formed the foundation of the structure. The elder Wright had implemented this interlocking system as a way for the building to absorb the shock of earthquakes. It proved to be effective. Less than a decade later, in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake rocked Japan. Much of Tokyo was in ruins. Wright’s Imperial Hotel, however, with its interlocking beam foundation, was one of only a few buildings still standing after the massive quake.

Before this 1923 earthquake, when John Lloyd Wright watched the construction of the Imperial Hotel, he was mesmerized by the interconnecting beams. Using a wooden, small-scale model of these beams, he tinkered around and realized that children would enjoy building their own little toy houses with beams like this. Another thing happened on this father-son trip to Japan. John Lloyd Wright realized that he could not work with his overbearing father. He needed to branch out on his own.

The Red Square Toy Company

Upon his return to the United States, John Lloyd Wright established The Red Square Toy Company. He chose the name after his father’s well-known symbol. He eventually changed the name of his toy company to J. L. Wright Manufacturing in hopes of distancing himself from his famous father.

Wright started small. He made a set of wooden beams with notches that would allow the user to stack them. The toy houses made with these small beams resembled log cabins, so Wright went with it. On August 31, 1920, he received his patent for “toy cabin construction” In his marketing of the toys, he explained that children could build their own toy cabins just like the cabin in Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the cabin in which former president Abraham Lincoln was born. In fact, he drew on this feeling of nostalgia and historical patriotism and named his toy “Lincoln Logs”.