The antimacassar was most common in the Victorian era. It is a small piece of cloth placed over a seat back or chair arms. Its name derives from the macassar oil that was favoured by men as a grooming hair oil and conditioner. The oil, which was made from coconut or palm oil and Ylang-ylang (an aromatic essential oil), had the tendency to transfer to the chair back and arms. On fabric covered chairs and sofas this caused problems and the simplest remedy was to lay a cloth (often crocheted) over these areas.
From the middle of the 19th century these cloths became known as antimacassars and could also be found in public places such as theatres and on railway carriage seats. Naturally, these were the higher priced seats and were a sign of class, as much as a means of protection. The antimacassars were popular at the same time as doilies and dresser sets creating a stereotype for middle class 19th century houses.
The more intricate designs were home made crochet or by tatting. It was a good method of showing the dexterity of the maker and became a Victorian fashion item. Being made from cloth they were washable and extended the life of the furniture. The cloth that covers the shoulders of a sailors uniform is also known as an antimacassar as it performed the same function of protection against hair oil.
Antimacassars are still in evidence today, but are more commonly made of disposable paper. Airlines often use them on their planes and are commonly used as a means of advertising or branding. Original Victorian antimacassars are now collectors’ items and have taken their place in the antique world.