Originally Published on August 14, 2021. Last Updated on August 7, 2023.
If relaxation took physical form, it would become an Adirondack chair. This outdoor living essential can be found in backyards across the United States and beyond. But have you ever wondered how this chair came to be or where it originated? We’ll happily sate your curiosity.
Grab a drink, get comfortable, and keep reading to learn the history of the Adirondack chair and a few fun facts about how it became so iconic.
What Is an Adirondack Chair?
An Adirondack chair is a reclined outdoor chair designed with a backward sloping seat, a tall slatted back, and wide armrests. The perfect lounge chair, it supports at every angle. Here are some additional perks to consider:
- Many Adirondack seats curve into waterfall fronts, providing extra support for the backs of knees.
- A complementing ottoman can be paired with this type of chair to offer comfort for your lower legs and feet.
- You can outfit these seats with cushions or headrests.
- The wide armrests are perfect for holding drinks or small bites.
- Most Adirondack chairs sit low to the ground, so you may have difficulty rising if you have back and leg problems. However, some models sit higher, which makes standing easier.
- There are dining and rocking versions of Adirondack chairs, allowing you to enjoy this seat in all your outdoor areas.
The Complete Adirondack Chair History
1903: Thomas Lee Designs the Westport Chair
It all started with Thomas Lee, a Massachusetts native whose family owned a vacation home in Westport, New York. This charming town is nestled along the shores of Lake Champlain and the surrounding Adirondack Mountains.
During one summer vacation in Westport, Lee decided he wanted more comfort and durability than what was offered by their current Victorian furniture. He put his mind to work in pursuit of a chair that could handle the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks. He began working on prototypes using knot-free slabs of eastern hemlock—a type of pine tree abundant in that area. To perfect the design, Lee had family members test each prototype before moving on to the next one.
Finally, Lee’s creation came to life. He presented a chair design that sat low to the ground with a high back, a slanted seat, and wide armrests. He dubbed it the “Westport chair,” a name that would later change. Aside from the moniker, the original design differed from today’s version in one other way: The seat and back weren’t slatted but made from single pieces of wood (Adirondack.net, 2021).
1905: Harry Bunnell Patents the Westport Chair
This is when we meet Harry Bunnell, a friend of Lee’s who owned a struggling carpentry business. Lee came from a wealthy family, so he had no desire to start a furniture-making company. After finalizing his design, he generously gifted it to Bunnell to build and sell.
The chairs quickly became a hit, and Bunnell saw an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. After refining the design to narrow it slightly, Bunnel patented the Westport chair in April 1905.
A segment of the patent reads, “The object of this invention is a chair of the bungalow type adapted for use on porches, lawns, at camps, and also adapted to be converted into an invalids chair. A further object of the invention is to produce a strong durable chair adapted to withstand rough usage and exposure to the weather.” (Google Patents, US794777A – chair.).
1910s: Westport Chairs Double as “Cure Chairs” During Tuberculosis Epidemic
The tuberculosis epidemic was at its peak in the late 1890s, causing one in seven deaths globally (History of World TB Day, 2023). People fled overpopulated urban areas and took to the mountains in the hopes of recuperating in the fresh air. This notion stemmed from The Wilderness Cure written by Marc Cook, a New York office worker stricken with tuberculosis who recovered after a sojourn to the Adirondack Mountains (Judge Silber, 2021).
Patients taking part in the restorative mountain experience would bundle up in their furs and blankets and spend hours lounging in “cure chairs” outside their rented “cure cottages” or on “cure porches” attached to boarding houses. Cure chairs were first used by Dr. Peter Dettweiler at his sanatorium near Frankfurt, Germany. Dr. Lawson Brown, who brought the design to America, described the chair in his book Rules for Recovery from Pulmonary Tuberculosis: A Layman’s Handbook of Treatment as, “… a combination of a bed and chair, which makes sitting out for patients without much strength a pleasure.” (Brown, 1934).
Many capitalized on the opportunity and patented multiple convalescence chair designs, but the Adirondack chair—though created for comfort and not a cure—became a popular lounging spot for tuberculosis patients due to its shape. The wide armrests and slanted backs positioned patients in a way that allowed them to breathe easier. It was marketed as a seat fit for the sick and healthy, which was the main reason the design endured (Judge Silber, 2021).
1938: Irvin Wolpin Patents a More Modern Adirondack Chair Design
The rationale behind the Westport chair’s evolution into the current design was the challenge of mass-producing the furniture from a single piece of wood. Carpenters began tweaking the build to streamline manufacturing and make the chair easier to sell.
In 1938, New Jersey inventor Irving Wolpin successfully patented his version of the seat, or as the patent states, “… a Lawn-Chair or similar Article …”
Wolpin’s design is more or less what the Adirondack chair looks like today: a low chair made of multiple thin slats of wood featuring wide armrests, a contoured seat, and a high backrest (USD109239S – design for a lawn-chair or similar).
1950s: Adirondacks Become More Accessible Post-War
The demand for patio furniture increased after World War II as families grew and moved to the spacious suburbs. In addition to wood, wicker, and wrought iron, designers experimented with other materials, such as steel and plastic, to create affordable furniture that could be mass-produced. Rocking chairs, gliders, tables, and Adirondack chairs became even more accessible to American households (Smithsonian Institution, 2017).
1990: The First Adirondack is Built From Recycled Plastic
In the late 1980s, plastic pollution was on the rise. Two high school friends decided to put their heads together to try and find a way to reuse plastic and keep it out of landfills and waterways. Their solution: transform high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic into outdoor furniture. And this is how POLYWOOD was founded, in a garage in Syracuse, Indiana. The flagship product was a folding Adirondack chair—the first Adirondack ever built using recycled plastic materials (POLYWOOD, 2019).
Adirondack Chair Fun Facts
Take in a few more titillating tidbits about the iconic outdoor seat.
- In Canada, the Adirondack chair is called the “Muskoka chair,” named after the Muskoka region many Ontarians visit during summer vacations.
- The original Adirondack chair was made from wood, but modern-day styles are built from various materials, such as teak, aluminum, injection-molded plastic, and HDPE lumber.
- Many believed Bunnell stole the design from Lee, but there’s no evidence that Lee sought credit or profit after the patent was filed.
Why do people like Adirondack chairs so much?
People like Adirondack chairs because they’re comfortable, remind them of relaxation, and fit a variety of outdoor scenarios. Kicking back with a cold drink on the porch, lounging by the pool to watch your kids swim, or getting cozy around the fire with family—all these things can be done from the comfort of an Adirondack chair.
What makes the design of an Adirondack chair unique?
The Adirondack chair’s timeless and adaptable design distinguishes it from other patio furniture. Creative minds have harnessed its versatility over the years, creating styles and uses that fit varying needs and niches. The constant flow of ideas allows the chair to maintain its popularity.
What are some variations of the Adirondack chair?
The Adirondack chair has evolved over the years, with variations appearing to meet different needs:
- Folding: This fold-up design saves space and stores easily.
- Rocking: The seat of an Adirondack connects to sloped runners to form a relaxing rocker.
- Hidden ottoman: A pull-out footrest is built into the seat, offering the option of full-body comfort.
- Upright: Here’s a higher seat that sits parallel to the ground.
- Glider: An Adirondack that moves back and forth on a fixed track.
- Swing: Trading the legs for sturdy chains, this version suspends the Adirondack chair in the air.
How did the Adirondack chair get its name?
The chair’s name morphed because of its proximity to the Adirondack mountain range, which is more widely known than the small vacation town of Westport. People began referring to it as the “Adirondack chair,” and the name stuck.
All About Adirondacks
Browse more resources dedicated to this outdoor icon.
- Brown, L. (1934). IV. On Fresh Air. In Rules for recovery from pulmonary tuberculosis; a layman’s handbook of treatment. (p. 59). Lea & Febiger. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rules_for_Recovery_from_Pulmonary_Tuberc/-W_H5pSFZuEC?hl=en&gbpv=1.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, February 15). History of world tb day. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/tb/worldtbday/history.htm
- Genuine Polywood. POLYWOOD. (2019, December 4). https://www.polywood.com/get-inspired/genuine-stories/polywood.html
- Google. (n.d.). US794777A – chair. Google Patents. https://patents.google.com/patent/US794777A/en
- Google. (n.d.-b). USD109239S – design for a lawn-chair or similar. Google Patents. https://patents.google.com/patent/USD109239S/en?q=%28%22Irving%2BWolpin%22%29&oq=%22Irving%2BWolpin%22
- Judge Silber, D. (2021, August 4). The feel-good recliner that cures what ails you. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-adirondack-chair-became-feel-good-recliner-cures-what-ails-you-180978322/
- Learn about the history of the iconic Adirondack Chair. Adirondack.net. (2021, August 18). https://www.adirondack.net/history/adirondack-chair/
- Smithsonian Institution. (2017, September). Patios, pools, & the invention of the American backyard. Sites community portal. https://www.sites.si.edu/s/archived-exhibit?topicId=0TO36000000L5NXGA0