LC Van Savage
On Antimacassars and Ottomans
The furnishings we creatures live with, use and own can be very odd indeed. They can look, feel, and even smell peculiar and often can be very queerly named.
Like “antimacassar,” for example. As I was growing up in a world embellished with antimacassari, I just could never connect that word to those things lying on the backs and arms of people’s chairs like crazy flat flowers. I thought they should just be called “those things on the backs and arms of people’s chairs.”
I don’t know why they were so prolific back in the olden days—which to someone of my seasoning was the days of bustles and stereopticons. Perhaps people back then weren’t as prone to washing their hair every day as many of us do now. (And from the old photographs I’ve seen, I think that’s a pretty sure bet.) And, perhaps housewives (yes, back then there were housewives, defined I guess as women happily married to their houses) disliked scrubbing the stuff of The Master’s head off the back of The Master’s chair. And so to avoid having to do that, women, being the enterprising beings they were then and certainly are now, invented antimacassars.
Back then, the more imaginative housewives created hand-made lace or crocheted antimacassars, often pure white large lacey circles of intricate design placed where The Master’s head would rest after a hard day’s toil, with smaller antimacassar progeny for the chair’s arms. I never could understand how a man with a head covered with “bear grease” as my uncles always called it, could possibly lean back on those works of art, but hey, back then a man was Master of his domain and was allowed to stain anything he jolly well pleased, do absolutely nothing about it, and to complain if it wasn’t cleaned up behind him. Men really had it knocked back then.
Now, just in case you’re interested, I’ll bet you thought “antimacassar” was a word of some foreign ancestry, right? You’d be wrong. “Anti” of course, means against. “Macassar” was the name of a brand of somewhat viscus hair oil back in the day. So, you get it? It meant being against Macassar bear grease that stained the overstuffed furnishings in the good and bad parlours.
In the less creative households, antimacassars were made from the extra yardage left over after the little woman had finished re-upholstering The Master’s chair. Now lest you think I’m suggesting everything back then was male dominated, you should know that women were allowed to have antimacassars on their chairs too, and they did. But these kinds of made-to-match antimacassars could be removed and washed when the bear grease became so soaked into them it could first be squeezed into a jar and used to oil those annoying squeaking screen door hinges. Back then, a good housewife was only doled so much lucre by The Master and thus squirreled away what she could, enough to secretly squander a bit for a bottle of something French to share during a spirited weekly game of Whist or Mahjong with the girls. Getting one’s self a bit bibulous on those afternoons could be forgiven the ladies back then, considering their staggering daily work load and, of course, having to deal with the dude they’d married.
And there was another piece of home furnishing whose name I always puzzled about; the ottoman. It was a big, square stool for the feet, usually positioned in front of The Master’s chair, (you know, the one with the antimacassars all over it.) Or it was an extra seat usually for the younger people in the room, a backless, armless, upholstered square cube often on rollers. They were wonderful projectiles when shoved violently with the soles of the feet from a sitting position into the path of an approaching sibling. But during those brief periods when sibling rivalry was in a state of truce, ottomans were fabulous carts upon which to take turns throwing one’s self, belly down, arms spread, to careen wildly across the room and crash into something preferably valuable. They were great toys when the adults were absent the room, but “ottomans?” Wasn’t that an empire or something? I wonder if back then it was what the people in that empire liked to sit upon, as for example, the Japanese used to and still do enjoy dining while seated on the floor about the table. Did the Ottomans prefer to be seated on those low, padded stools while they dined? Or chatted? Or thought deep thoughts? Actually, were there any Ottomen ever? I looked it all up.
Here’s the definition; spelled with a small o, ottoman means the footstool indeed, but it’s a French word. However, change that o to O and it means a Turk from the tribe of Osman. Add the word “Empire” to Ottoman and you have a vast Turkish sultanate of southwest Asia, northeast Africa and southeast Europe, founded in the thirteenth century by Osman I, who I guess enjoyed resting upon the things. Maybe he even invented them. I’m afraid that piece of information has been lost to the mists.
So there you have two furnishings with strange sounding names, although they’re useful things to own, I guess. I mean it’s comforting after a hard day at the mines to lean one’s greasy head back on an ottoman and put one’s feet up on an antimacassar, right? No, wait---that’s---never mind.
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