Parlors of Old Ladies

When I was a little girl, my mother routinely visited elderly Norwegian ladies, dragging me along in my Sunday best. Seen, but not heard, was my mother’s motto for me. I would sit quietly on a hard couch, my white anklet-covered feet in stiff patent leather Mary Janes dangling several inches off the floor, trying with all my might to not look bored out of my mind, while my mother and a lady (looking like Methuselah to my young eyes), would prattle on for about an hour in rapid-fire Norwegian.

I occupied myself by examining book titles and various needlework in the parlor. Invariably there was at least one chair or couch with its back, and frequently its arms, covered in some ornate crocheted little rug. As I saw these items only in the parlors of elderly ladies (both Norwegian and American), I assumed it was an old fashioned furniture accessory designed to keep the furniture upholstery from getting soiled.

(The picture on the right is from a 1939 crochet book I borrowed from a friend.)

(The photograph on the left is from a 1944 crochet booklet borrowed from a friend.)

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned “antimacassar” (pronounced an-ti-ma-CAS-sar) was the English word for the little crocheted “rugs” I had seen on chairs. While I thought that it was an odd word, I never learning its origin.

I also learned that my guess was right: antimacassars were once commonly put on sofas and high-backed arm chairs to protect the upholstery. But why the unusual name? In the mid 19th century, a very popular men’s hair product was Macassar oil – used since the late 1700s. It had the properties of an oily ointment – destined to leave greasy marks on upholstery! By 1850 people began adorning their upholstered chairs with “antimacassars.”

This tradition continued well into the 20th century, as evidenced by the photographs above.

So my next question was whether Macassar is a nut or grain; I assumed it was a tropical nut. Wrong. Macassar oil was made with coconut oil or palm oil and scented with the oil from the flowers of the ylang-ylang tree.

So why the name “Macassar oil?” Makassar is a port city facing the Makassar Strait and is the capital of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. (After 1971, the city was also called Ujung Pandang.) During the colonial period, this port city exported a lot of the hair oil!

(Readers may remember that Exxon Mobil is exploring the deep water sea in Makassar Strait in a bid to find petroleum reserves. )

Curiously, all the explanations of Macassar oil described it as a hair ointment for men though – as captured by the early 19th century advertisement on the left – it claimed to be good for women, men and children. Indeed, while most definitions of “macassar oil” described it as a hair tonic for men, as I looked for picture advertisements, most advertised the oil for women’s use.

Indeed curious, until you remember that in the 19th century of western Europe and U.S., proper ladies were taught to sit upright in chairs – no reclining and resting their heads against the back of a couch or chair!

I have one antimacassar. As you can see, it is filet crochet and with a pattern of two swans swimming under hanging leaves. I found it in a stack of old linens at a flea market sale for 25 cents. When I first laid eyes on it, I could only think of the time and patience someone put into the piece and was saddened that its recipient tossed it into the discard bin.

Undoubtedly like many of you, treasures such as these are visible in my house. I don’t believe in tucking away these items for “safe keeping.” They were made to be used and admired! Of course, I admit that when the grandkids are visiting, there are a few 100 year old items that I roll up and put safely out of their reach.

Now I have two questions:

  1. Are there fiber bloggers for whom “antimacassar” was a new word?
  2. Are there fiber bloggers who, like me, have at least one antimacassar?

๐Ÿ™‚

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Crocheting, Knitting, Norwegian Upbringing in U.S. and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Parlors of Old Ladies

  1. Pingback: 1939 Vintage Crochet |

  2. That is great!! I love hats!! I wear them whenever I can. I noticed hats are back in style, but I still don’t see a lot of people wearing them. I think you must wear a hat and act like you own that look, otherwise it’s hard to pull off:)

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  3. Thank you! I am glad enjoy my blog. And I agree with you – every day we should wear something special. In fact, I am on my way to a potluck at my granddaughter’s class, and I wore a beautiful wide-brimmed grey straw hat (very elegant!). I am sure I will be the only woman there with a big hat like this!

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  4. I now feel like I should visit thrift stores and start an anti-massacar rescue group! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. While it hasn’t been a new word for me for decades, it is not one I have opportunity to use often! And I wonder what they are called in – for instance, German, French or Norwegian?!

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  6. The word is so – well – awkward! But once we know what it means, the word makes perfect sense. It seems a bit like calling a carpet “anti-noise & dirt” … ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Thanks for the book reference! I will have to see if the local library hass Miss Lollipop’s Lion!

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  8. I don’t own one, but I have known the word “antimacassar” since I was a child. One of my favorite children’s books of all time, Miss Lollipop’s Lion, is about a woman who loves animals and makes antimacassars. They’re beautiful. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

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  9. I love your stories! Everytime I come to your blog I learn something new! The “Antimacassar,” are so elegant and pretty. I also believe as you do that precious items should be displayed and not put away. It’s interesting because when I was young my mother would tell me stories about how her mother, (my Nanny) would never let her wear her good dress, or good shoes anywhere but to a special occasion. She would then grow out of the new shoes, or dress so fast that she only got to wear them once. My mother then did the same thing to me. lol Now that I’m an adult I decided that I don’t need a special occaision to dress up or share special items. You have such a brief time on this earth and you should enjoy it while you can. I read a book called “Life is Short wear your party pants,” and it woke me up. Anyway, thanks for sharing and bringing back memories for me. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  10. I lke the sounds hens clucking! Very homey. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  11. Yes, I know the word and I have several of those things around, but I use them for doilies. My mother was a great one for crochet, as was her mother. I used to listen to my mother and her siblings speaking Czech as they were sitting around the kitchen table with their mother and drinking coffee. It reminded me of the clucking of hens in a hen house! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  12. Thank you … I am glad you enjoy it! I love the idea of a “ladies’ parlor”!!!!

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  13. Love love love your blog!
    In my last house I had my own ladies’ parlor – no clutter – just a few pieces of furniture and art from my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s house, a small TV and VCR so I could watch all the old classic movies. It was like a comforting visit to my grandmother’s house.

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  14. molivermade says:

    Not a new word for me and own one. Then again, have always loved fiber and needlework.

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  15. Just remember how few people know and/or use the word, so you may get a few odd looks if you ask about them! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  16. minaandme says:

    I’ll admit I’ve never heard of or even seen (if my memory serves) an antimassacar before. They are a clever idea though! They do look like a lot of time and patience would go into creating one. Now that I know what it is, I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for one!
    ~Lacey

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  17. Thank you for reading my blog. And I am with you! I think it would be better to hang an old rag over the beautiful antimassacar to protect them from greasy hair! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  18. Thank you for reading my blog, and I am enjoyed you liked reading about antimassacar … the hard part comes if you try to casually work it into a conversation. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  19. I hate looking through stacks of linens at flea markets … I always feel I need to buy these discarded beauties and give them a good home!

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  20. Give yourself time … ๐Ÿ™‚ After taking my single antimassacar out to photograph, I have left it up, enjoying looking at the creativity of whomever made it. They are pretty, even if old fashioned!

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  21. Visiting with my Norwegian relatives was fine … then the kids would only have to be polite and chat for a few minutes and, after gulping down cake and juice, could tromp outside and play! ๐Ÿ™‚ It was those formal visits my mother made where she “called on” old Norwegian ladies and had coffee. Her rules were: I was to listen respectfully when spoken to, not evesdrop (rather difficult as I was right there!), not ask questions, not let my face show that I was listening to the conversation, and sit straight in the chairs without fidgeting. Very painful for a child!

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  22. ethgran says:

    My memories of sitting in the parlors of ancient ladies is much more positive than yours. My Norwegian aunties all spoke English (one of them just sort of) and they included me in their conversation or provided me with something to play with. Several were needle artists themselves so I didn’t have to go to flea markets to find my antimacassars, plus I received a few from my husbands family. However the one displayed most prominently is an old ragged Hardanger cloth that none of siblings wanted. Mother used it rather than tucking it away because it reminded her of her father who died when she was an infant. Some of the embroidery thread has lost it’s color and it is very soft from many washings but it is a favorite piece of my history.

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  23. Julia says:

    I knew the word and am now reminded of when I learned the origin. I don’t, however, have any.

    (Yet?)

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  24. P. Taylor says:

    I learned something new today. Never heard of the word antimacassar but do remember seeing them at grandma’s house. No, I do not have one but you can find them at flee markets.

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  25. Patricia says:

    This would be a new word for me – what an interesting story. I can relate to being seen and not heard while visiting. I remember at one time everyone had beautiful matching crochet work on their furniture. Lovely post!

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  26. tgonzales says:

    Karen,

    I am a fiber blogger who have known the word antimacassar for a while, but I have to admit that I only knew that they were for keeping the furniture clean from men’s oily hair. Although I would have hated to see my antimacassar sets with men’s oily hair residue on them. YUCK! Oh yes I do have more than one set. Thanks so much for sharing the history with us; it’s always fun learning new things everyday, don’t you think so?

    Hugs,
    Tamara

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  27. Louisa says:

    I never realised that this word was what it was! how fascinating! what a great bit of research, gorgeous black and white photos too.

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