Something I found on the Decayed Lace blog, which features some interesting writing and trivia:
[D]ear reader, let me kindly introduce you to the wonders of the so-called ANTIMACASSAR.
In order to fully grasp what’s to be understood by the concept of an antimacassar, one has to undertake a voyage back into the 19th Century- a voyage into the curious world of Victorian fashion and cosmetics, to be accurate!
As the devoted connoisseur of Yesteryear knows, it was the style in these days for a Gentleman to wear his hair in a carefully clipped coiffure [often in combination with sideburns, which were a token fashion item of the era] that was combed back rigorously and, in order to make it appear sleek and glossy, trickled with macassar oil. Thus, one could say macassar oil was the precursor of brillantine, which reached the height of its popularity during the rambunctious days of the Jazz Age. Today, the prospect of oily hair might appear to us as an outlandish fad, but back in the dear Golden Age gentlemen sporting an elaborately brillantined haircut were the pinnacle of elegance!
To the mistress of the Victorian household however, the lubricious
headdress usually was a mere nuisance- grease spots all over the backrest of your sofa! Therefore, the canny Lady would pin pretty white doilies on the spot of the furniture where the Gentleman’s head would be. These doilies -as you might have guessed by now, dear reader- were called antimacassar, pragmatically named after the principal purpose they had to serve.
[Considering the fact that Victorian Gentlemen also used other, rather revolting substances like beef suet or bear’s grease to control their hair, macassar oil might not have been that bad after all.]