“To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, Harry C. Bunnell, a citizen of the United States, residing at Westport, in the county of Essex and the State of New York, have invented a new and useful Improvement in Chairs. … ” So begins patent number 794,777, dated July 18, 1905, in reference to what we commonly refer to as the Adirondack Chair. With its signature slanted back and wide armrests, the recognizable profile of this outdoor recliner has become a trademark of summer in America. Despite the patent filed over a hundred years ago, though, Harry Bunnell, a carpenter and shop owner, was not actually the one who created the chair’s design. (via NYTimes.com.)
In Monday’s Rosslyn Roundup I included a link to a post about Adirondack Chairs, originally invented by Thomas Lee in 1903 but copied and adapted by countless carpenters since. It is a welcome surprise then to see the New York Times’ The 6th Floor blog tackling the same timely topic today.
In “Who Made That Adirondack Chair?” Hilary Greenbaum highlights Harry C. Bunnel’s decision to patent the design actually invented by Thomas Lee allegedly without his permission. A case of vintage Adirondack snark? Perhaps. But even in Hilary’s telling, Lee seems to have been gracious and let the matter go, permitting his friend to produce the Adirondack chairs for profit for a quarter century.
Local Link to Adirondack Chairs
I think Uncle Tom’s design is superior but Harry Bunnell patented and sold “a better mouse trap”.
As luck would have it, I’m friendly with several of Thomas Lee’s descendants who still visit or live in Westport, New York – our Lake Champlain “neighbor” to the south – where the original Adirondack chairs (aka Westport chairs) were invented and produced. I’ll ask around to see if there’s any more to this story, perhaps passed down through the generations.
Update: I checked in with Bruce Ware, the realtor who showed us property for several years and ultimately brokered the deal for us when we purchased Rosslyn. He is directly related to Thomas Lee. Here’s what he had to say:
The Adirondack chairs that Uncle Tom made and the one that Bunnell patented are similar but not the same. I can say that I think Uncle Tom’s design is superior but Harry Bunnell patented and sold “a better mouse trap”. The patent has since expired, and I would be happy to discuss it more and show you the differences. So it goes… (Bruce Ware, 6/30/11)
If you know any more about the history of Adirondack chairs, please share your wisdom in the comments below or on the Facebook page.