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