An antimacassar is a small covering for the arms and backs of chairs. It’s usually highly ornamental. You’ve probably seen them at Grandma’s house. The crocheted or embroidered things that always fall off and you have to make sure to straighten them before you leave. They once had an important purpose.
A long time ago when washing your hair in the winter in a drafty house would get you pneumonia, people would get greasy hair. Greasy hair is hard to style, and it would smell. To help with the styling and the smell, people would put on scented oils. One popular hair oil came from the Indonesian islands, and was named Macassar. The natural hair oils, plus the added Macassar oils and the oils from dirty hands, would get on the expensive upholstery and ruin it.
Sometime around 1850, people started putting bits of easily laundered cloth or lace on the chairs to protect them from the oils. These were called Anti-Macassars, because they protected against the Macassar oil. Eventually people got better houses and could indulge in better hygiene, but the decorative lace and embroidery were now part of the interior decoration of homes.
The next time you go to Grandma’s and have to straighten the antimacassar when you get up from the couch, you’ll know what it’s called and how the tradition of having them on the chair’s arms and back got started.