Antimacassars and Victorian furnishings

Antimacassar scarf for furnishings. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By Sharon K. Gilbert

When I was a young girl, men who wanted to impress ladies still used hair oils and grease to make their hair behave and shine. It was no different in the 19th century, when men slicked back their unruly locks with a pomade known as Macassar Oil.

Supposedly, the hair oil was created and popularized by a barber named Alexander Rowland in the early 19th century and eventually trademarked in 1888 (our Book One year).  Made from coconut oil or palm oil with the addition of ylang-ylang oil for a light fragrance, it not only served as a fashion statement for men but even influenced home furnishings.

I can tell you that my father and uncles’ hair often left ‘stains’ on chairs, so even in the 1950s, we still used doilies on couches and other upholstered furnishings. These became ubiquitous necessities in Victorian homes and came to be called ‘antimacassars’ in honor of the oil these small scarves hoped to absorb.

So, the next time you see a doily on a chair, think of all those oily heads and smile.