If you’ve taken a trip by coach, train or aircraft, it’s likely that you’ve experienced an antimacassar. A strange name for a simple item that you usually take for granted – so what is an antimacassar and why is it so called?

An antimacassar is the small cloth, placed over the seat headrest, to prevent soiling of the permanent fabric underneath.

Hair oil was commonly used by men in the early 19th century. In 1793, Alexander Rowland, a celebrated London barber, created a hair preparation called Rowland’s Macassar Oil – so named because it was reputed to have been manufactured from ingredients purchased in the port of Makassar in the Dutch East Indies. Within two decades it had become hugely popular.

The fashion for oiled hair was so widespread that housewives began to cover the arms and backs of their chairs with washable cloths, to prevent the fabric coverings from being soiled. Around 1850, these started to be known as antimacassars.

So, there you have it. Next time you board a long-haul flight, you can impress the person next to you with your new-found knowledge – just don’t blame us if they request to move to another seat!