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The Origins of the Adirondack Chair
"Want is the mistress of invention," wrote Susanna Centlivre. Many inventions and creations were born out of a want or a need – including the iconic Adirondack chair, which over the past century has become a well-known staple in outdoor furniture. Most homeowners recognize the familiar design of the Adirondack chair, and many continue to choose it for its reputation for quality, durability and comfort.
Yet many don’t realize just how long Adirondack chairs have been around, and just how entrenched they’ve become American culture. The following is a look at the history behind Adirondack chairs.
Humble Beginnings of the Adirondack Chair
In 1903, Adirondack chair creator Thomas Lee had a problem and a want. He had a large family of 22 who would stay at his summer home on Lake Champlain near Westport, New York. His problem was that they had no comfortable outdoor furniture on which to sit.
It was a hilly area, so conventional chairs were difficult to sit on without feeling like you were slipping off. So Lee set about solving his problem by attempting to design a comfortable chair that would be well-suited to the inclines around his lakeside home. He used his family to test each new prototype. Finally, with the help of his family’s feedback, he created the Adirondack chair using just 11 pieces of wood all cut from a single plank. The chair’s seat slanted slightly to the back to allow a person to sit comfortably on a hill without sliding forward. Lee first called it the "Westport" chair; it later became known by the name of Adirondack.
The Adirondack Chair Takes Off
Lee showed the chair to his carpenter friend, Harry C. Bunnell, an old hunting buddy. Bunnell had a modest carpentry shop in Westport and was in need of winter income. That winter, Bunnell went to work building chairs based on Lee’s design, staining them green or medium dark brown. They were a huge success from the start; Bunnell quickly realized he had a winning product on his hands.
In early April, reportedly without Lee’s knowledge or permission, Bunnell obtained a patent for "a new and useful improvement in chairs." He called it the Westport Plank Chair. For the next 20 years, he manufactured the chairs, signing each one. During that time, Bunnell experimented with different variations, including a child-sized version. Today, an Adirondack chair with the Bunnell signature, originally sold for around four dollars, is worth about $1,200.
How the Adirondack Chair Got Its Name
The name of the chair has its own story. The Adirondack Mountains lie west of the town of Westport, where the chairs were first created. In the Adirondack Mountains, there was a convalescent home for tuberculosis patients. Some caregivers at the home thought the chairs would be a great way for patients to be revitalized by sitting outside and breathing in the fresh Adirondack mountain air. Thus, the design came to be known as the Adirondack chair.
Adirondack chairs are also known as "Muskoka chairs" in Canada. The name Muskoka comes from the municipality of Muskoka, Ontario – an area north of Toronto that is popular for cottages. In the Quebec cottage country north of Montreal, the chairs are also referred to as "Laurentian chairs" or, in French, "chaises des laurentides."
Throughout the years, artists, carpenters and weekend craftsmen have created their own interpretations of this classic low-seat chair, with its slightly slanted back and wide armrests. In the 1940s, the first mail-order kits appeared for the chairs, and their popularity took off. Today, Adirondack chairs have been modified with rounded backs and contoured seats. Many variations on the original design are also available, including Adirondack benches and rockers, and they can be made of engineered wood or recycled plastic lumber in addition to traditional woods. One can find these chairs on the beach, in the mountains, on backyard decks and many other locations – including commercial storefronts. In certain areas, they are also popular in outdoor cafes because patrons can use the wide armrests in lieu of a table.
In the South, there’s even a term for sitting in an Adirondack rocker: "Adirondacking." It describes public picnics where the Adirondack chair is the main seat used. "Adirondacking" can also be used to describe sitting down in one of the chairs outside home improvement or grocery stores and taking a break from shopping.