Several slats of wood; three names; one legendary chair.
Sure, to many, it’s “just a chair”—but the Adirondack chair (which you might know under one of its pseudonyms—we’ll get to that) is so much more than just a place to perch. It’s a symbol of cottage country, of long summer days spent on the shores of a lake, of watching the sunset over the water as the season comes to a close.
It’s quite a poetic thing, really. Here are 6 snippets that will make you pause the next time you recline in an Adirondack chair.
A What Chair?
Even if you don’t know it by name, you’d probably recognize an Adirondack chair if you came across one. Its beauty is in its simplicity: slats of wood form both the back rest and slanted seat portions of a chair, with equally basic wooden planks serving as wide, unpretentious arm rests. Its short legs rest just a few inches off the ground.
Likely spotted in back yards, on patios, balconies, or porches throughout North America, Adirondack chairs are a sturdy outdoor furnishing staple.
Also Known As…
The Adirondack chair gets its name from the Adirondack Mountain range in upstate New York. One legend speculates that the name was chosen for the chair because guests of a convalescent home for tuberculosis patients in the Adirondack Mountains enjoyed sitting in the chair to take in the therapeutic fresh mountain air.
In fact, its name wasn’t always so—and it isn’t the only name that the chair goes by today. It was originally dubbed the Westport plank chair, as in Westport, New York—where the design was patented (more on that story shortly).
Canadians might know the chair as the Muskoka chair, named after the beloved Muskoka cottage country that many Ontarians flock to every summer. French-Canadians have another name for it still: the Laurentian chair (chaise des Laurentides), named after a region in Quebec.
It All Started with Thomas Lee
The year is 1903, and a man named Thomas Lee is in Westport, New York, vacationing with his loved ones. He was on a mission to construct the perfect outdoor chair that will allow him to take in the sights of Lake Champlain, in all her glory. This is, at least, how the story goes.
Mr. Lee built the prototype of the Adirondack chair that we know it today. No detail was overlooked: to give you an idea of the attention to detail, he even constructed the seat on a slant, making it compatible with the sloped Westport terrain. Even if you perch your Westport chair on the side of a mountain, the slant will allow you to look straight on to the horizon.
Don’t Mix Friends and Business?
Here’s where the story gets a little fuzzy. All versions suggest that Thomas Lee’s carpenter friend, Harry Bunnell, was the one who patented the design, but how exactly that happened is up for debate.
One story implies that Bunnell was a little short on dough, and that Lee suggested he make copies of the chair to sell in his shop. Some suggest that Lee was on board with Bunnell’s mass production of the chair, while others indicate that Bunnell’s patent, received in July 18, 1905, was a coy move made behind a friend’s back. The true story? We might not ever know!
The Original Westport Chair
The original Westport chair is a little different than the Adirondack/Muskoka iterations we see today. Most of the chairs were built out of Hemlock, a wood that was easily found the in New York area, though some were made of Basswood. The telltale mark of an original Westport chair is the stamp on the back, featuring the US patent number that Bunnell received back in 1905.
Antique hunters, keep an eye peeled for an original Westport chair: a chair in good condition can fetch around a thousand dollars!
Today’s Adirondack Chair
So what, exactly, has changed about the chair? While the original chair had a single thick plank of wood serving as the chair’s back, today’s Adirondack uses several pieces of thinner wood to serve as the back of the chair, making it a bit more comfortable.
Today’s Adirondack chairs come in more options than just Hemlock and Basswood: you can find all kinds of different wooden chairs, and even some made out of plastic.
The original Westport chair came in natural colors only, but Adirondack chairs of all colors now exist—perfect for blending into their surroundings, no matter where you put them.
Cup holders, sophisticated headrests, foot extensions—the add-ons that you’ll come across in today’s Adirondack chair are endless.