Did your grandma use antimacassars, chair covers, or step-ins?

J. H. Osborne • May 10, 2020 at 7:30 PM

I learned a new word recently, or to quote the friend who taught it to me, “It’s a new word to me.” But as soon as I heard its definition, it brought back warm memories that led to comical tales told by Mom and her siblings about their childhood days on my grandparents’ farm in rural Lee County.

The word: antimacassar. It’s the proper name for decorative pieces of fabric or needlework placed atop the backs of upholstered furniture. Sometimes matching pieces cover the arms of the furniture. For me, they bring back memories of lace-like doilies or crochet works or small rectangles of linen with decorative embroidery or cross stitch.

My memories of actually seeing them, in person, aren’t that sharp, although I know my paternal grandmother did continue to like using them right up until she died in 1997. I still have some, along with crocheted centerpieces meant for coffee tables, with smaller versions meant for end tables.

I remember all those things mostly through photographs taken inside the homes of various relatives in the 1940s and 1950s.

Several definitions I found online for antimacassar indicated the word was coined in 1844 and that those lace or linen pieces on chairs and sofas weren’t purely decorative. A brand or type of hair oil used by men at the time was called macassar. The coverings were meant to protect the upholstery.

“The dry look” for men’s hair didn’t prevail until the 1970s. That’s from my own observation. I can remember Mom getting a new “French Provincial” living room suite (from Rhoton &  Smith, of course) that had a sort of silky-satiny, brocade-like upholstery. One of the chairs was high-backed and soon fell prey to an uncle’s well-oiled, ready-for-church hairstyle. Mom was distraught. Too bad antimacassars had gone out of fashion.

Reading about antimacassars made me think of chair covers, the kind used on dining chairs or folding metal chairs. I’ve often seen them on the latter to spruce up the folding chairs for banquets or receptions. But chair covers are nothing new for Mom. As she was growing up, her home included many “straight back” chairs, including around the dining table, where the family ate three home-cooked meals a day.

My Grandma Pearl made homemade “chairbacks” that were very much like modern-day slipcovers, to slide down over the backs of the straight back chairs. Mom and some of my older cousins remember that Grandma Pearl often embroidered the chairbacks or decorated them with appliqued patterns much like a quilt. It sounds like these were used more frequently in fall and winter and were discarded during spring cleaning, to be replaced by new ones likely made during the winter months.

The only reason I’ve heard of the chairbacks is because of a prank some of the siblings perpetrated on one of the six sisters. Back then, you see, it was also usual for girls and women to make and wear homemade underthings, including “step-ins.” Step-ins were pretty basic, from what I’ve been told. No frills. Actually, the sound like they might have been more akin to the men’s “full cut,” snap-front boxer shorts I at one time preferred than anything marketed to women today.

Well, to some of Mom’s siblings, one of my aunt’s step-ins, that she’d made herself, looked a bit like unadorned chairbacks. So, one morning, having found her freshly laundered step-ins drying on the line, they slipped a couple of pairs over the backs of the dining chairs — and that’s where she found them when she came in for breakfast.

She failed to see the humor in it.

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