Those Mad Hatters
“Mad as a hatter” was not Lewis Carroll’s invention—the expression came from the very real insanity of many a milliner… This is fairly common knowledge, as this little summary shows from “Corrosion Doctors“:
The felt hat industry has been traced to the mid 17th century in France, and it was probably introduced into England some time around1830. A story passed down in the hat industry gives this account of how mercury came to be used in the process: In Turkey camel hair was used for felt material, and it was discovered that the felting process was speeded up if the fibers were moistened with camel urine. It is said that in France workmen used their own urine, but one particular workman seemed consistently to produce a superior felt. This person was being treated with a mercury compound for syphilis, and an association was made between mercury treatment of the fibers and an improved felt. Eventually the use of solutions of mercuric nitrate was widespread in the felt industry, and mercury poisoning became endemic. Dementia and erethism were indeed a common ailment among 19th Century hatmakers.
The crazy Mad Hatter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is becoming widely associated with the effects of Mercury on behavior as well as physiology. Mercury was used to process the felt hats used in England around Lewis’ time. Erratic, flamboyant behavior was one of the most evident alterations caused by mercury. (Others included excessive drooling, mood swings, various debilities.)
But Lewis Carroll did not invent the phrase, although he did create the character. The phrases ‘mad as a hatter’ and “mad as a March hare” were common at the time Lewis Carroll wrote (1865 was the first publication date of Alice).
Top hats were usually made of beaver fur pelts—I always have a nagging feeling when I draw them that I’m winging it for texture and highlights.
For hat lovers, the Portland Hat Museum is a place of pilgrimage. Any Northwest Twainers been there?
Fun interview with its curator Alyce Cornyn-Selby on Collectors Weekly—this bit caught me, about the appearance of the first top hat:
Cornyn-Selby: People took hat wearing very seriously. In fact, when John Hetherington stepped out of his London hat shop in 1797 wearing the first top hat, it was such a big deal that that he was arrested for disturbing the peace.
Collectors Weekly: He was arrested for wearing a hat?
Cornyn-Selby: Yes. Some people liked the hat and cheered, but others didn’t and booed. It caused quite a commotion: Horses bolted; a kid was thrown into a wall and broke his arm. Hetherington was arrested and put in jail, but when he got out he had more hat orders than he could fill. The top hat has been with us ever since.