BY GARY MAY
In 1905, Harry C. Bunnell of Westport, New York, received a patent for “a new and useful improvement in chairs.” The chair was to be suitable for use on porches, lawns and at camps, and to be durable enough to be exposed to the elements. It had broad arms and its seat and back — each built of a single piece of wood — were slanted.
Thus was born the first Westport chair. But according to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, the design actually came from Thomas Lee, who created it in 1903. Unfortunately Lee, who called his invention a Westport plank chair, showed his design to Bunnell before he obtained a patent — and Bunnell snatched it away as his own! He began to produce his chairs from hemlock.
Wesport is located on Lake Champlain, about 120 kilometres south of Montreal, in New York state. And if you look way off to the west, you’ll be able to see the Adirondack Mountains. In those mountains, there was a convalescent home for tuberculosis patients, where caregivers figured the chairs would be perfect for guests to sit out on and enjoy the recuperative powers of the fresh mountain air.
Thus the term “Adirondack chair” was born.
Over the years, improvements were made, including using slats instead of single slabs for the seat and back. In the 1940s, the first mail-order kits appeared and the chairs’ popularity took off. No one knows who brought the first one to Canada, although Dave Wright of The Bear Chair Company in South River, Ont., figures it was likely someone from New York with a cottage here.
Soon, the term Muskoka chair was born, after the name of our own quintessential cottage district. And today, several companies make variations of the chairs in rocker, glider and other styles.
What’s the difference between a Muskoka and an Adirondack? The simple answer is: Nothing.
Maybe you'd prefer to sip your beer in a 'chaises des laurentides'
They both feature short legs, wide arms, high backs and slanted seats. However, according to Woodmill of Muskoka in Gravenhurst, their Adirondack chairs are two inches higher off the ground and two inches wider between the arms than their Muskokas.
Canadian Tire sells both without any explanation for the different names, and no consistency in the design of what is labelled what. Still, the Bear Chair’s Wright believes one variation between the two is that while the Adirondack chair features a flat yoke behind the seat, the Muskoka’s is curved.
But it seems that any variation between chairs is based on a manufacturer’s preference, rather than a difference in the official definition. And to make matters even more complicated, anyone who visits Quebec cottage country north of Montreal might find themselves invited to try out one of that area’s “Laurentian chairs,” or “chaises des laurentides.”
Difference or no difference, the Muskoka and the Adirondack are the epitome of summer comfort. Anyone who slips into one cannot help but be consumed by a sense of calm and wellbeing. You can sit there for hours, confident in the opinion that nothing can go wrong and no harm can come to you.
So pour yourself a frosty beer, or mix a G&T over ice, settle back in your Muskoka chair (or Adirondack) and prepare for a couple of hours of nothing more strenuous than reading a good book — or just staring off over the sparkling blue water. After all, you deserve it.