Never mind where antimacassar came from, where have they all gone?
I remember as a child, and my mother still continued the custom until her death, pieces of cloth, linen or lace, often with floral patterns brightening them up, draped over the top of an armchair or settee and, sometimes, over the arms. They seem to have gone out of fashion nowadays, although airlines use paper versions on the top of their seats.
These antimacassars, for that is what they were, were often as much of a nuisance as a benefit as they would easily dislodge themselves, drop down into the seat of the chair or be thrown in disgust and frustration on to the carpet.
To understand the origin of the unusual name given to this piece of adornment to a chair we need to understand what happened when the powdered wig met its demise at the end of the 18th century. Any man worth his salt during the 18th century would wear a powdered wig on his usually shaven or closely cropped head. The powder used to give the wig their distinguished look was made of starch, a vital ingredient of which was flour.
In the run up to what we now know as the Napoleonic war, the Pitt administration grew both increasingly repressive and fiscally active. Flour became scarce and the imposition of a tax on hair powder in 1795 meant that wigs soon became old hat.
As well as having to grow their own hair, chaps about town were on the hunt for something to keep their barnets in place, smelling nice and looking distinguished. The answer was pomade, a greasy type of ointment used to slick down the hair and often made from mashed apples. Hence its name – from the Latin word for an apple, pomum, via the French pommade, ointment.
Of course, there were lots of types of pomade but one which particularly went down a storm from the first decade of the 19th century was an unguent for the hair marketed by one Alexander Rowland, based in London’s Hatton Garden, and described in later adverts as “infallible in promoting an abundant growth and in maintaining the early hue and lustre of the hair to the extent of human life.” Others stated, “The utility is evinced by preserving the hair from falling off or changing colour, and its elegance by producing the most smooth and beautiful gloss ever known.” Earlier adverts claimed simply that it “preserves, strengthens and beautifies the hair.”
The pomade was known as Rowlands’ Macassar Oil. The story was that the sweet oils that made up the unguent came from Sulawesi, then Celebes, and, in particular, from the Macassar district of the Indonesian island. Naturally, that was all moonshine. The principal ingredient is thought to have come from the kusum or schleichera oleosa, a tree native to the Indian sub-continent, which was then mixed with some other oils including that from the ubiquitous olive. Still, never let the truth get in the way of a bit of exotica and the embossed, square glass bottles cut quite a dash on the dressing table.
The problem with wearing a greasy ointment on your hair was that it left a greasy deposit on anything you rested the back of your head against, principally the head rest of a chair. Certainly, by the late 1830s, in a frantic attempt to preserve the integrity of the decorative coverings of their chairs, servants and housewives, the distinction was moot at the time, would put a protective covering over the backs of their chairs.
As they were combatting the dangers presented to upholstery by Macassar oil, the coverings were known as antimacassars, pretty unimaginative but true nonetheless. The frisson of excitement that these protective objects caused can be judged by this passage from the New London Magazine in 1837; “After Ada had brought out an anti-macassar of a new pattern, a present from London, and had received homage, as its possessor, from her envious friend…”
Macassar oil went out of fashion in the 1850s but antimacassars were seen as an invaluable protection from the grime and dirt of diurnal existence and lingered well into the late 20th century and beyond, ably warding off the perils presented by the penchant for using Brylcreem before and after the Second World War.