adirondack chairs by polywood

Adirondack Chair History: The Complete Timeline

The Adirondack chair is an iconic piece of outdoor furniture that graces patios, decks, and beaches all across America. But have you ever wondered how this chair came to be or where it originated? 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 featuring a backward sloping seat, a tall slatted back, and wide armrests. This reclined design offers good support for your back and bottom, making it excellent for lounging. This chair has a stylish form and function as well as these unique characteristics:

  • Many Adirondack chairs boast a contoured seat front, providing extra support for the back of your knees.
  • Pair your chair with an ottoman or footrest for extra leg and knee support.
  • You can outfit your chair with seat cushions or headrests for additional comfort.
  • The wide armrests are fantastic for holding a drink or balancing a small plate.
  • Adirondack chairs sit close to the ground, so if you have back and leg problems, you may have difficulty getting down that far.
  • Since they’re low to the ground, Adirondack chairs aren’t as easy to get out of compared to regular chairs. But, the wide armrests give you a good grip to get out of the chair.

wide arm on a polywood adirondack chair


The Complete Adirondack Chair History

Let’s dive into the complete history of the Adirondack chair to see how this classic piece of outdoor furniture originated.

The Original Adirondack Chair

The history of the Adirondack chair starts in the early 1900s with Thomas Lee, who was born in Massachusetts to a wealthy family. The Lee family owned a home in Westport, a charming town nestled along the shore of upstate New York’s Lake Champlain and the surrounding — you guessed it — Adirondack Mountains. Westport was a frequent vacation spot for the Lee family. In fact, Lee was a Harvard law school student but dropped out because he wanted to work in nature and felt more at home in the Adirondacks. 

During one summer vacation in Westport, Lee became unsatisfied with the comfort and durability of the Victorian furniture that was available. So, he decided to build a chair that could handle the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks. He began working on prototypes using knot-free slabs of eastern hemlock — an evergreen tree abundant in that area. To perfect the chair, Lee had family members test out each prototype before moving on to the next one. 

After numerous woodworking and test-lounging sessions, Lee eventually revealed his creation: a low chair with a high back, a slanted seat, and wide armrests. He called it the “Westport chair,” not the “Adirondack chair.” Aside from the name, the original chair design had another key difference from today’s version — the seat and back weren’t slatted. They were made from single pieces of wood. 

vineyard curveback adirondack chair by polywood

The Rise of the Adirondack Chair

After Lee finalized the Westport chair, he ran into his friend Harry Bunnell, a local carpenter who owned a shop in town. Bunnell was worried about his shop’s financial health for the upcoming winter due to the lack of resources. Since Lee was already wealthy, he had no interest in starting a furniture-making business. As a generous act of friendship, Lee gave Bunnell his chair design.

Bunnell began to produce and sell Westport chairs to the local community. Needless to say, the chairs became a hit, so Bunnell acted swiftly. After refining the design to make it slightly narrower, Bunnel patented the Westport chair in April 1904. The patent reads, “A chair of the bungalow type adapted for use on porches, lawns, at camps, and also adapted to be converted into an invalid’s chair. A further object of the invention is to produce a strong, durable chair adapted to withstand rough usage and exposure to the weather.”

Over the next several decades, Bunnell continued to grow his Westport chair-making business. Local competitors took notice and started selling similar but slightly altered variations of the chair. As popularity for the chair spread, people began referring to it as the Adirondack chair because the Adirondack Mountains are just more widely known than the small town of Westport, NY. And, as you know, the name stuck. 

polywood adirondack chair sketch

The Adirondack Chair Today

The best explanation for the Westport chair’s design evolution into today’s Adirondack chair is the challenge of mass-producing chairs from a single, knot-free plank. Carpenters began tweaking the design to help streamline the manufacturing process and make the chair easier to sell. 

In 1938, New Jersey inventor Irving Wolpin successfully patented his version of the chair, or as the patent stated, “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 back.

polywood adirondack lineup

Today, it’s one of the most iconic pieces of outdoor furniture you can buy. Its design exemplifies class, style, relaxation, and American innovation. If you want one or all those things, you won’t be disappointed with an Adirondack chair. 


Adirondack Chair Fun Facts

  • Canadians refer to the chair as the Muskoka chair, named after the Muskoka cottage region that many Ontarians go for summer vacation.
  • Adirondack chairs can be made from teak, aluminum, injection-molded plastic, and — our personal preference — high-density polyethylene (HDPE) lumber.
  • Many people believed that Bunnell stole the design from Lee, but there’s no evidence that Lee sought credit or profit after the patent was filed. It’s unknown whether Lee regretted his decision to give Bunnell the chair design.


Conclusion

POLYWOOD’s first piece of furniture was the Adirondack chair, and it remains our best-selling item to this day. It’s comfortable, ergonomic, versatile, and gorgeous in a variety of outdoor settings. We offer 16 different styles of the Adirondack chair in a wide selection of colors, so you’re bound to find one you’ll love to put in your outdoor space!

Want to know more about the history of POLYWOOD? Learn more about our story here.

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