As a child I floated in a sea of wonderful words, many of which I don’t hear any more – so I am always delighted when I come across them in a crossword. One such is antimacassar, which I spotted again the other day.
We didn’t actually use the word antimacassar very much (apart from one granny) – we called them “chair backs” and I embroidered many under the guidance of my mother. They were hopeless on the back of leather chairs and were forever slipping. “Your back’s down”, we would say. Our various cats and kittens also loved to claw at them.
The name anti-macassar means “against-macassar”. So, I hear you ask, what’s macassar? Well, macassar was a sort of hair oil used from the early 19th century, made from coconut or palm oil and fragrant ylang-ylang. The ingredients allegedly came from the Indonesian port of Makassar, hence the name.
For a while before the use of these oils it had been fashionable for wealthy men in Europe to wear wigs. This began around 1624, when the balding King Louis XIII of France started to wear one. Charles II would have been the first English king to follow this trend. Then in the 18th century the wigs were powdered with starch to make the wearer look more distinguished. This all came to an abrupt end in Britain in 1795, when flour became scarce and William Pitt’s government began to tax hair powder.
If you look at these portraits of the first four King Georges, you can see how fashions changed…
With the demise of powdered wigs, men began to style their own hair instead and there’s an interesting article about early 19th century hair styles on the Jane Austen’s World blog. It all seems a bit wild and romantic and natural. Don’t you just love these two Frenchmen of the time?
I have no idea who Beaufort was, but sadly I find the astronomer Bernier was only 24 when he died in Timor of dysentery in 1803.
Quite soon men realised they needed a “hair product”, as the salons now call it, even to pull off the natural look. Such a product is known as a pomade – another great word which you can maybe see came from the Latin word for apple (pomum). “Pommade” is French for ointment – because ointments usually contained mashed apple.
The early 19th century hair dressings used bear fat rather than apple, until macassar oil came along and this became so fashionable in Victorian and Edwardian times that washable cloths were used to protect the chair fabric.
I don’t know who came up with the name antimacassar – maybe it was an obvious one – but it came into use around 1850. As well as in the home, antimacassars were used in theatres and even now you may find them in the more luxurious railway carriages and plane cabins, although sometimes made of disposable paper.
Although macassar went out of fashion, from the 1930s to the 1960s (more or less) it was replaced by a waxier product called brilliantine – usually with the brand name Brylcreem. But it was just as bad in terms of messing up your upholstery, which is why we still had chair backs when I was a child.
If I’m not mistaken, the model in that advert is Richard Greene, who played Robin Hood on children’s TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s…
With several 1960s revivals in the last decade, old-fashioned antimacassars and all sorts of home crafts seem to have been given a new lease of life…