Early American cabins in the hills of Appalachia and beyond were simple, often built of materials within a mile or two of the homestead and containing little more than a couple of rooms.
Finding rest in these mountain homes was often laborious and children would sleep nose to toes upon homemade beds or atop planked floors.
Individuals who grew up in these cabins would often reminisce that on many winters morning they would awaken to thin layers of snow covering their blankets and pillows due to the cracks in the logged walls.
Always resourceful, the men and women of the mountains eventually found a relatively cheap form of insulation in the form of used and dated newspapers. Though early newspapers were not as affordable to the average family as they are now, they have always been time sensitive and once they were deemed “old” they were no longer of much value — enabling destitute mountaineers the opportunity to recycle them for an even greater purpose: Keeping their homes and families [relatively] warm.
Serving as both a wallpaper and insulation, newspapers, cardboard boxes, discarded printed maps, and any other large paper a pioneering family could get their hands on became a part of the home — and an unexpected benefit was that many of the mountain children perfected their reading ability simply by staring at the walls of their cabins; often learning of places far beyond their own mountain ridges.
The May 1878 edition of the South Atlantic Magazine records an international traveler’s observance of one such child near White Top Mountain, Virginia:
“Our party consisting of several gentlemen on pleasure intent left Boone on a Monday morning in August. On the second day of our journeying we came in sight of the monarch of all the mountain range the towering White Top. We had been assured of a good dinner at David Dickson’s “the half way house” and were not disappointed. We spent that night with one Squire Weaver under the eastern shadow of White Top Mountain in a cabin of hewn logs not a foot of sawed lumber I think in the whole house, except some articles of furniture. We found in this house a most singular geographical genius, a boy some eight or ten years old, who though far away from civilization and schools, we found knew more of geography than any of our party which was composed of lawyers, merchants, and classical scholars. Where the boy got his facts was a mystery, he could scarcely tell himself. He had a small primary geography thumbed almost to pulp, a cheap Colton Map of the World and the walls of the cabin were papered over with old newspapers; these were about the stock and store of his literary facilities… With many a weary step with many a toilsome stretch of our muscles we climbed the long slope that led from Weaver’s to the bleak bluff overlooking the vast regions one sees from the summit of White Top Mountain. To the northward lay the luxuriant valleys of Southwestern Virginia. They seemed to stretch away in almost limitless extent, yet girdled in by mammoth mountain cinctures. Behind us stood piled up in mighty masses the huge and grim monsters of this Appalachian chain.”
The practice of lining the walls of homes with newspapers continued for decades but fell out of style following the end of the Great Depression; however, a very limited number of homes still insulate using old newspapers.
Marvin J. Anderson, an architect who helps date historic structures was once reported to have stated that “[Newspapers] regularly help us date when an addition was built or an improvement was made.”
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