Years ago while conducting research for the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition, I was surprised to learn that Lincoln Logs—one of my favorite childhood toys—were designed by John Lloyd Wright, son of world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Overshadowed by his father, John has received little attention beyond a brief 1982 biography now available online. And he certainly seemed reticent about telling his own story, instead publicly sharing only a few experiences as part of his short, impressionistic 1946 book about Frank titled My Father Who Is On Earth.
Turns out that John was both a successful toy designer and an architect in, dare I say it, his own right. Here is a brief overview of his story, including the origins of those ever-popular Lincoln Logs.
Born in 1892, John Kenneth (later changed to Lloyd) Wright was the second of Frank and Catherine Wright’s six children. John’s early years in Oak Park, Illinois, seemed happy; he reminisced about the fun times spent in the playroom of his childhood house—designed by his father, of course—and the lively parties hosted by his parents. When scandal erupted in 1909 because Frank deserted his family for a client’s wife, John struggled for a bit. He worked briefly on his great uncle’s farm and attended the University of Wisconsin for two years, but quit school to head West.
After doing odd jobs from Portland to San Diego, John decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an architect. He talked his way into being hired as a draftsman for the Pacific Building Company, and then earned a job as a designer for architect Harrison Albright. With a few commissions under his proverbial belt, John planned to continue his architectural education with Otto Wagner in Austria. However, when he asked his father for financial help to travel to Vienna, Frank telegraphed him: “I’d like to know what Otto Wagner can do for you that your father can’t do!” [My Father Who Is On Earth, page 67.]
With that indirect invitation, John returned to Chicago in 1913 to become his father’s apprentice and office manager. Four years later, John sailed with Frank to Japan to start work on a major commission, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where he served in the role of chief assistant developing working drawings and a plaster model. After 16 months in Japan, John argued with his father over his unpaid salary and was fired unceremoniously. So John returned on his own dime to Chicago, where he tried to make a living designing and selling wooden toys primarily to the local department store chain Marshall Field.
This is where Lincoln Logs come into the picture.
The famous construction toy was inspired by his father’s earthquake-resistant design for the Imperial Hotel. John apparently began tinkering with the toy idea while still in Japan. In 1920, he received US Patent 1,351,086 for his “Toy Cabin Construction.” In the patent specifications he wrote: “This invention relates to improvements in toys and more particularly to educational toys calculated to develop a child’s constructive inclinations.” Lesser known are John’s building blocks for which he received US Patent 1,894,605 in 1933. There were two sets of the latter, which were sold in boxes reading “John Lloyd Wright—inventor of Lincoln Logs—presents Wright Blocks” on the lid. However, they never caught on commercially like his previous construction toy.
According to the 1982 biography, “although he later sold the patent for Lincoln Logs [to Playskool around 1943], the product marketed today is substantially the same as his original design.” The original packaging included a log cabin drawing with an image of Abraham Lincoln and the slogan “Interesting playthings typifying the spirit of America.” It’s important to point out that Lincoln Logs weren’t the first log-based construction toy. Similar products dated back to the 19th century, including an 1865 “Log Cabin Play House” in the Museum’s collection that was made by Ellis, Britton, and Eaton in Vermont.
John returned to practicing architecture in the early 1920s, and eventually moved back to California partially to escape his father’s shadow. I found it interesting that John designed a number of buildings in my home town of San Diego, primarily after moving to Del Mar in 1947 with his third wife Frances. He died there on 20 December 1972 at the age of 80, and was buried alongside his five siblings in the Unity Chapel Cemetery near his father’s Taliesin home and school in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, John Lloyd Wright didn’t live to see his Lincoln Logs inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999 alongside such classics as the Duncan Yo-Yo, Hula Hoop, Radio Flyer wagon, roller skates, and View-Master.