Word of the Month

Antimacassar

David Zapatka

Reader and fellow New Adventures In Learning student, Terry Meury, suggested a word for something we have all seen but few would be able to properly name; antimacassar / æntɪməˈkæsə/. You will certainly remember seeing armrest covers on sofas and headrest covers on chairs in your parents’ or grandparents’ homes. You may have furniture with these covering your armrests or headrests in your own home as we do today! We have all seen these on airplane seat headrests. Did you know these were called antimacassars?

This interesting word has a rich history. We have to go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century to find the roots of this word when a certain Londoner named Alexander Rowland of Hatton Garden, London’s famous jewelry and diamond district, invented a new unguent. (Unguent is another interesting word meaning an oily substance normally put on skin or a wound) This new unguent was invented for men’s and women’s hair. Remember that in this era bathing in hot water was seen as unhealthy but having one’s hair look exquisite was attractive. This may or may not have had something to do with this product being more popular with men than women. He claimed his invention was very exotic and composed of sweet oils imported from Macassar, an island seaport in Indonesia. The oil supposedly came from the seeds of the Schleichera oleosa tree and mixed with olive and other oils. Since these trees don’t naturally grow in Indonesia, Mr. Rowland’s claims were suspect. Macassar oil was sold in embossed square glass bottles and was marketed to the “enlightened and judicious public for the unrivalled efficacy of this Oil, a must-have product.”

The fashion for Macassar-oiled hair became so popular and pervasive that housewives wanting to protect their furniture began to cover the backs of their chairs and sofas with washable cloths, doilies (a seventeenth century creation), to preserve the fabric coverings from being soiled. In the 1830s, these furniture doilies came to be known as antimacassars for the obvious reason!

Antimacassars came to have elaborate patterns, often in matching sets for furniture around the home. They were either homemade using a variety of techniques such as crochet or tatting or bought from shops. The fashion for Macassar oil eventually waned but antimacassars continued in use into the twentieth century to protect chair fabrics from grease and dirt deposited by hair. Remember those plastic sofa and car seat covers that covered the entire seat?

The popular novel, film and play, The Phantom of the Opera, references antimacassars. “The wooden bedstead, the waxed mahogany chairs, the chest of drawers, those brasses, the little square antimacassars carefully placed on the backs of the chairs, the clock on the mantelpiece and the harmless looking ebony caskets at either end—.

Where do you see antimacassars in use today?

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