To find the inspiration for this term, we must go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and to a Mr Alexander Rowland of Hatton Garden in London, who invented what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “an unguent for the hair”.
He claimed it was based on sweet oils imported from Macassar or Makassar, a seaport on the island of Celebes (now Sulawesi in Indonesia). It was basically oil from the seeds of a tree that these days is believed to be Schleichera oleosa, with the addition of olive oil and other oils, but was almost certainly never anywhere near Macassar (the tree grows in Nepal and India).
Macassar oil was sold in embossed square glass bottles and was promoted in terms as extravagant as any of the period:
The Proprietors of the Macassar Oil can proudly appeal to an enlightened and judicious Public for the unrivalled efficacy of this Oil. They wish not to deceive or delude by rhetorical declamations or bombast language — they solicit only the test of experience, and with confidence they can affirm, that the more it is known in a higher degree of estimation will it be held. The utility is evinced by preserving the hair from falling off or changing colour, and its elegance by producing the most smooth and beautiful gloss ever known. Thus to the fairest and most amiable part of the creation it must prove an invaluable advantage, its virtues being so great an auxiliary to heighten their charms. To expatiate more on the subject would be superfluous; suffice it to say, that the Macassar Oil is perfectly innocuous; and it will retain its virtues in any climate; therefore, it is earnestly recommended to Ladies or Gentlemen going abroad.
They don’t write copy like that any more. An advertisement placed by Rowland and Son in an advertising supplement to La Belle Assemblée, or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, January 1807. The text was almost certainly composed by Alexander Rowland junior. The first known reference to the oil is from the year before.
The fashion for oiled hair became so pervasive that in desperation housewives began to cover the backs of their chairs and sofas with washable cloths to preserve the fabric coverings from being spoilt. In the 1830s, these started to be known as antimacassars:
After Ada had brought out an anti-macassar of a new pattern, a present from London, and had received homage, as its possessor, from her envious friend ... Ada, as all people do to their “bosom friends,” began to unbosom herself to her dearest Amelia.
New London Magazine, 1837.
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 bought from shops. Though the fashion for Macassar oil eventually waned, antimacassars continued in use into the twentieth century to protect chair fabrics from grease and dirt deposited by hair.