Alongside the aspidistra, the antimacassar is a cultural sign of a particularly Victorian respectability that lasted well into the 20th century house. It has been roundly derided, including by archmodernist Virginia Woolf in her 1937 novel the years: “Old ladies [ . . .] sit eyeless, with leathery cheeks, joyless among the tassels and antimacassars of their bedrooms and kitchens.”
That Aspidistra elatior The houseplant colonized middle-class homes because it was guaranteed to survive in cool, gas-lit front rooms. Antimacassars—sheets of linen or cotton tucked or draped over the backs of chairs and sofas—also earned their ubiquity by their utility. When hair oils replaced powdered men’s wigs in the early 19th century and became synonymous with the most successful Macassar oil, it left an indelible and costly shine on household upholstery.
Just as well-washed collars and cuffs indicated personal respectability, so in the 1830s the freshly invigorated “anti-Makassar” was the sign of a well-run home. Sourcebooks reproduced the many fashionable designs and complex techniques that women could use to net, tattoo, crochet, or embroider their own.
In the early 20th century, when Brylcreem superseded hair oil, no three-piece suite was complete without one. As dingy as it got, an anti-macassar added a touch of distinction to even the most scruffy, horsehair-filled armchair. But its increasingly cumbersome manufacture gradually outweighed its usefulness as a removable, washable upholstery protector.
Today’s simpler seat and cushion covers have ensured that the antimacassar is de rigueur only in cottagecore Instagram feeds, or as a stiff adornment for the glossy upholstered armchairs that Chinese officials commonly use to receive guests.
But it was still at the height of its popularity in 1904 when the Blackie family of Glasgow commissioned artist Margaret Macdonald to decorate their new home, Hill House, designed by her husband, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
It’s not clear whether Macdonald simply wasn’t radical enough to do away with the whole concept, or whether she seized it as an ideal canvas for exploring what became known as the Glasgow School of the Art Nouveau. But she gleefully reinvented the antimacassar as an elaborate three-headed contraption with bright geometric patterns in cotton, silk, satin and velvet (pictured)—not a bit of lace is seen. It’s secured by five black-and-white bands to mirror — and protect — her husband’s highly impractical cream-colored upholstery.