Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

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“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”


The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

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References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

Happy Anniversary Alice

Yes, when I was a little girl, I read “Alice in Wonderland”!  And I have loved her ever since. There have been untold printings of this whimsical, nonsensical book … and, of course, numerous movies, tv specials, plays, even comic books; but I had no idea how popular she really was until I started selling tea-related “Alice in Wonderland” items.  It was almost impossible to keep them in stock. One evening a desperate father called and asked me if I could possibly ship overnight 12 cups and saucers for his little girl’s Alice in Wonderland themed tea party the next day.  From teapots to mugs, jewelry, figurines, books, you name it, Alice fans were and are passionate collectors.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  Written in 1865 by Charles L. Dodgson under the pen name, Lewis Carroll, this charming, fairy tale-like story follows a little girl by the name of Alice as she falls through a rabbit hole into a world of fantasy and illusion, populated by the most fascinating characters.

Alice Liddell dressed as a beggar. Photographed by Lewis Carroll (1858).

Alice Liddell dressed as a beggar. Photographed by Lewis Carroll (1858).

Legend says that in 1862 on a boating trip with the Liddell family for an afternoon’s outing, 10-year old Alice Liddell asked Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) to entertain her and her sisters with a story.  Dodgson (32, was already a published author, poet, illustrator and photographer), created a fantasy tale of a little girl named Alice, and the adventures that followed after she fell down a rabbit hole.  The origin of how the Liddell family befriended Dodgson are a little sketchy.  One report says Dodgson had become friends of the Liddell family while photographing the Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford where Alice’s father, Henry, was the Rector.  Another says Liddell’s father was the Dean of Christ Church College in Oxford, where Carroll was a math student or professor.

However they met, Dodgson was a family friend and had told many tales to Alice and her sisters, but this time he actually made Alice the main character.  Alice was so delighted by this nonsensical world of rabbits in waistcoats and playing card gardeners, she pleaded with Dodgson (aka Carroll) to write the story down for her.  It took Carroll months as he carefully penned the story, illustrating it with his own pen and ink drawings.  Although the story is said to be for Alice, with her short cropped dark hair, it appears that Carroll used Alice’s sister, Edith, as the model for these illustrations.

Dodgson was an exceptionally gifted and talented man.  Some might say he was also cursed with demons.  He won many awards as a mathematician and scholar.  Under the name, Lewis Carroll, he was a published author of short stories and poems.  In addition to his writing and illustrations, he was a very respected and influential photographer,  but gave up photography entirely in 1880 for some unknown reason.  The success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland made him known around the world.

Edith Liddell illustrated by William Blake Richmond

Edith Liddell illustrated by William Blake Richmond

Since being written in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has never been out of print, and has been translated in more than 170 languages.  Today, only about twenty copies of the first printing are known to survive.  In 2009, at the Profiles In History auction house in California, a copy of the original book, which actually belonged to 10-year-old Alice Liddell, was sold for $115,000.  Also auctioned was an extremely rare first edition, which sold for $40,000.

To celebrate this milestone anniversary, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City has on exhibit the original manuscript of Alice (on loan from the British Museum), as well as original correspondence, unique drawings, hand-colored proofs, rare editions, vintage photographs, and some other very important objects associated with the story.  Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland will be on view at the museum through October 11th.  If you happen to be in New York City between now and October 11th and are as avid a fan of Alice as I am, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this 150th anniversary celebration!

And the next time you sit down to a pot of tea, be sure to pay homage to the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare!  It is, after all, their anniversary as well!

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Refererences:  The Famous People Society, Wikepedia.org, Paste Magazine,  The Morgan Library and Museum.