Our word for the day is: antimacassar

this is a doily, not an antimacassar

This is a very beautiful doily, which I bought from the talented woman who crocheted it, and which adorns the coffee table in the Manse’s living room. But it is not an antimacassar, as it turns out. What is an antimacassar? Read on.

Raymond and I had what I like to call a crokinole-type moment last weekend at the Manse. Let me explain: when I say the moment was crokinole-like, I’m referring to the little story I told in a post here. It was about Raymond’s reaction to my mention of a community crokinole party to be held in the hamlet of Eldorado (which is not far from Queensborough, where the Manse is); that reaction was utter bewilderment. He asked: “What’s crokinole?” (Raymond grew up in New England, and apparently there was no crokinole there.)

This past weekend’s crokinole-type moment was when I was taking the photo that you see at the top of this post. It’s of a lovely locally handcrafted thing that we bought last fall at an arts and crafts show in Cooper (another hamlet near Queensborough), and that came to light last weekend when we had cleared off the clutter (okay, books) that had been covering it on the coffee table in the Manse’s living room. As I was snapping the photo, I asked aloud to no one in particular: “Is that what they call an antimacassar?”

And even as the question was coming out of my mouth, I was struck by what a kooky word “antimacassar” is. Where on earth had I heard or learned that word? What kind of a word is “antimacassar” anyway? Was I making it up? Was I hallucinating?

I think Raymond thought so. Because he gave me exactly the same puzzled look that “crokinole” had elicited a few months before. As if to say, “What the ?????”

Clearly it was time to turn to the internet. And once the signal that is appallingly slow at the Manse finally coughed up the answer, I felt quite proud of myself: not only had I spelled antimacassar correctly in entering it into Google, but I had been awfully close to being right on what an antimacassar is. Not entirely right, though: the crocheted piece that adorns our coffee table is not, it turns out, an antimacassar. (I believe it’s a doily. Or something. Whatever, it’s pretty.)

But what, I am sure some of you will be dying to know, is an antimacassar? Well, I’ll tell you. Having just learned it myself.


You must remember this… if you’re of a certain age. People, these are antimacassars. (Photo from the blog Historical Craftology)

All you of a certain age (i.e. my age and older), and especially those of you who might have grown up in a rural place like Queensborough, will remember the crocheted pieces that were carefully placed over the tops and on the armrests of easy chairs in many homes, especially those where older people lived. (Not at the Manse when I was growing up there. My parents were cool young thirtysomethings at the time, and our furniture was more along the lines of Danish Modern.) I remember thinking that those crocheted pieces were superfluous and overly precious and silly, and I always assumed their use was just an old-fashioned decorative trend. And indeed it was – but as I learned from my friend the internet, it was a trend that had a reason behind it, at least at the outset. And that reason also explains the crazy name “antimacassar.”

Here’s the deal, and thank you, Wikipedia, which is sounding particularly authoritative on this one:

“Macassar oil was an unguent for the hair commonly used in the early 19th century … The fashion for oiled hair became so widespread in the Victorian and the Edwardian period that housewives began to cover the arms and backs of their chairs with washable cloths to preserve the fabric coverings from being soiled. Around 1850, these started to be known as antimacassars … They came to have elaborate patterns, often in matching sets for the various items of parlour furniture; they were either made at home using a variety of techniques such as crochet or tatting, or purchased.”

Now isn’t that something? Presumably “oiled hair” had long ago gone out of style by the time of my Manse childhood in the 1960s and 1970s; but (not to put too fine a point on it), indoor plumbing was not ubiquitous then, and baths and showers were rather less frequent than they are now, and I bet a lot of people sitting in those puffy easy chairs had hair that, if not exactly oiled, could have left some staining on the precious upholstery.

Were it not for the antimacassars.

10 thoughts on “Our word for the day is: antimacassar

  1. Great entry, but you neglected to address a central question that’s always bothered me (to the extent that I think about the subject of your blog, that is): How on Earth do you pronounce the word “antimacassar”?

  2. Raymond has clearly never read much L. M. Montgomery. That’s okay, I think the old set from Gelert is still kicking around Mom and Dad’s somewhere.

      • Oh my goodness, now you’re just showing off you Lucy Maud knowledge, Val! I’m afraid I haven’t read any of those books since – well, since I was a kid at the Manse. Now that you’ve got me thinking about it, it seems only right that the Manse have a complete set. The Story Girl, Emily of New Moon … there are quite a few beyond Anne, right?

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