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The History of the Adirondack Chair – an All-American Story

adirondacks and rockers

Adirondack chairs are so popular today that people typically don’t pause to consider their history. Originally called the Westport chair by designer Thomas Lee, the Adirondack chair dates to the year he invented it in 1903. While on vacation with his family in Westport, New York near Lake Champlain, Lee decided to create outdoor furniture to allow he and his family the chance to sit together and enjoy the outdoors. He initially created several designs that he felt made the chairs sturdy and comfortable enough for outdoor lounging.

Lee finally settled on one design that created an outdoor chair from 11 wood pieces. The new chair had wide armrests, a simpler design than the ornate Victorian chairs popular at the time, and offered much more spaciousness than people were accustomed to when sitting in a chair.

The Beginning of Marketing for Adirondack Chairs

Harry Bunnell, a carpenter friend of Thomas Lee who owned his own shop, asked Lee in 1903 if he knew of any opportunities to earn additional income that winter. Desiring to help his friend, Lee showed Bunnell the Westport chair he had created on vacation and told him to build and sell the same outdoor chair. East Coast residents loved the new chairs and bought them in record numbers. This led to Harry Bunnell applying for a patent on the original Westport chair without giving any credit to Thomas Lee, his friend and the original inventor.

A 1910s Pair of Westport Chairs by Thomas Lee for Harry Bunnell.
A 1910s Pair of Westport Chairs by Thomas Lee for Harry Bunnell. Source: https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/building-garden/garden-furniture/1910s-pair-of-westport-chairs-thomas-lee-harry-bunnell/id-f_15960221/

Bunnell successfully sold Westport chairs made from hemlock plank for at least 20 years. In 1938, another designer stole Lee’s original idea and obtained a patent for an outdoor lawn chair after making simple modifications to it. That designer, Irving Wolpin, rounded the seat of the chair for improved comfort. Over the next several decades, many other designers modified the original Westport outdoor chair. Eventually, the chair began going by the name Adirondack after the Adirondack Mountains near where Thomas Lee originally created it.

Modern Styles of the Adirondack Chair

Today, some Adirondack chairs rock back and forth while others contain a curved upper portion on the back. However, these designs are not as popular as the traditional design. Manufacturers design the traditional Adirondack chair using three to six slats to make a very straight back. The highest quality of these chairs are made from teak, a strong type of wood that lasts for years and can hold up under all types of weather conditions.

Adirondack chairs of lesser quality might contain pine, plywood, or plastic as the primary materials. While it’s possible to buy a plastic model for as low as $20, people should remember the old adage that you get what you pay for. Adirondack chairs made from high-quality materials are likely to last for a lifetime. Some handy do-it-yourself types may even be able to create their own Adirondack chair since it doesn’t require any complicated joinery.

Popular Adirondack Chairs from Terra Outdoor Living

Besides teak, other rare woods that manufacturers might use when creating an Adirondack chair include cedar and eucalyptus. These high-quality woods don’t rot or rust and they can also withstand damage caused by insects, decay, and other elements. These are the main factors that drive up the price. Different manufacturers include different features such as cup holders, headrests and footrests, sun protection, and more.

A Versatile Chair to Put in Any Location

It’s common today to see Adirondack chairs on private patios and decks, at the beach, parks, resorts, and other popular recreational sites. They come in a wide range of colors and sizes. Although originally designed for outdoor use, some people have discovered that they like Adirondack chairs enough to keep a set indoors as well. For homeowners who choose to keep these chairs inside, rustic décor tends to match them quite well.

People who live in climates with snow and ice in the winter should bring their Adirondack chairs inside for the season to help prolong their lifespan. This is true even though every Adirondack chair comes complete with weather-resistant finishing to help it withstand temperature extremes and other severe weather conditions.

From a Scandalous Beginning to an Icon Synonymous with Summer

When Thomas Lee originally created Westport chairs, he used a single wood slab that contained irregularities and knots. Although Harry Bunnell took the idea from a friend, he did improve the design by using a higher quality of materials and using three to six wood slats to create the angled back people know and love today. They love it so much, in fact, that just seeing an Adirondack invokes the spirit of Summer year-round.