The Great Man's Son He built a timeless toy (but little legacy).
By Bill Doll

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Sometime this Christmas season, the umpteen billionth set of Lincoln Logs--those miniature, walnut-colored logs with their signature flat-notched ends--will leave a toy shop shelf. So it has been, year after year, since their first appearance, in 1918. Not bad for an 82-year-old toy that's the epitome of low tech: born when Abe Lincoln, the log cabin, and the American West, not intergalactic Armageddon, were the stuff of playtime.

Lincoln Logs date back to the day in 1916 when a young Illinois architect named John Lloyd Wright was fired by his father, Frank. John had been FLW's chief assistant on Tokyo's new Imperial Hotel. The father had asked John to collect part of his fee for him, and John--whose pleas to his father for a salary had been ignored--took the liberty of deducting $1,200 before wiring Dad the $800 balance. That was the end of their collaboration. Home alone, 24-year-old John concocted a log cabin construction set, drawing on his and his father's experiments in earthquake-proofing the Imperial with a foundation of interlocking timbers.

John was one of the maverick architect's five children, and the house he grew up in was the axis mundi of Wright's "Prairie School" revolution in architecture and design. John's mother followed educator Frederich Froebel, who advocated learning through play and coined the word "kindergarten." John's father built the children a "wonderland playroom," John wrote, an immense arched room equipped--naturally--with building blocks. But it was no fun being the "great man's son," as John put it. If the world considered FLW a genius, so did FLW. His "colossal ego is matched only by his towering ability," John wrote. Whatever Lincoln Logs' place in our culture, they were first a son's quest to make his mark, free of the paternal supernova.

Millions of children, at least, would attest that John succeeded. The Lincoln Logs patent, filed in August 1920, describes the toy matter-of-factly as a way for children to learn to build realistic "diminutive log cabins and other like structures." But as the U.S. entered World War I, a toy named for an American legend was just right for the moment, playing to nostalgia for a simpler time--before smokestacks, foreign masses, and the helter-skelter rush of the modern age.

The story of John Wright as toy maker is hard to trace, as are the doings and fate of his venture, Red Square Toy Company (an odd name, since it was founded just after the Russian Revolution). Wright's personal papers were burned in 1939, and after the mid-1920s he shifted energy to his growing architectural practice. Playskool bought Lincoln Logs in 1943, and the inventor died in 1972, at age 80.

But a new nostalgia (for baby-boomer childhoods) as well as Lincoln Logs' universal appeal have propelled the toy into its ninth decade. In the fad-obsessed toy industry, such longevity is matched by few playthings. Last year, K'NEX licensed Lincoln Logs from Playskool (now owned by Hasbro) and is giving them new marketing oomph.

Over the years, John Lloyd Wright's architectural creations may have brought more pure joy to more people than have his father's. But Frank's magnetic power is again stealing some of his son's spotlight; K'NEX advertises that Lincoln Logs were invented by...Frank Lloyd Wright's son.