The designs we call “Log Cabins” are ancient ones. The first evidence of the designs is from animal mummies from the pyramids of Egypt. Historians believe that after archaeologists brought these mummies to British museums, the designs made their way into quilts.
Eventually, the designs came to North America where they were first called “log cabin” designs because they appeared similar to pioneer log cabins, which were common there.
During the United States Civil War, log cabin quilts became very common, especially in the northern states. Most quilt blocks centered around a red, yellow, or possibly black square, each having a different significance. A red center stood for the hearth of a home, and a yellow center stood for a light in the window of a home. Oral folklore suggests that during the war, log cabin quilts with a center black squares were hung on clotheslines outside people’s homes, signaling safe places for runaway slaves on the underground railroad.
Early log cabin quilts were made of velvets, satins, wools, and other non-traditional fabrics. Instead of being strip-pieced as they are today, they were made using what is called the foundation method. Common log cabin quilt square designs included the basic square, White House steps, courthouse steps, eight-sided pineapple, barn raising, and sunshine and shadows.
Eventually, log cabin quilts began to be made primarily of cotton, and strip piecing with a running or straight stitch by hand or machine became the primary method of construction. That is how most log cabin quilts are sewn today.