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