The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are!”
The phrase “Mad as a Hatter” has woven it’s way into our collective lexicon since it’s origins in the 17th century and was popularized in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland. But what does it really mean? A good question deserves a good answer from a qualified source. And who better to answer for a Mad Hatter than the resident (almost Mad) Hatters at BeauChapeau?
For workers in the early days of hat-making there were clear hazards. Chief among them was the effect of inhaling fumes during hat-making. The growing practice of “Carroting” made fur pelts easier to work with and provided a luxurious sheen to the nap of fur felt once a hat had been made. Mercuric nitrate was the chemical of choice for Hatters and continued to be used for over 300 years even though it was well known to be poisonous.
In “Carroting,” mercuric nitrate was soaked into fur pelts to allow the fur to be easily removed. Once removed, the furs became matted together into a loose felt, soaked in mercuric nitrate again as a smoothing agent, and then repeatedly shaped into large cones, shrunk in boiling water, and dried. Once shrunk to the proper size, the cones were then dyed, formed, and finished into hats. These same steps are still used today, with the exception of mercury as the removing and smoothing agent.
Due to the Hatter’s constant contact with the mercury, they were exposed to intense mercury poisoning. Quite apart from the damage to the lungs, mercury poisoning caused severe neurological damage, drooling, mental confusion, forgetfulness, derangement, and eventual paralysis. All these symptoms were described as one going “mad,” and its frequent occurrences in the hat industry coined the phrase “Going Mad as a Hatter”.
This summer, the Shaw Festival will be presenting Alice in Wonderland which stars the loveable Mad Hatter to help Alice in her adventures in Wonderland. In addition, Disney® will be releasing Alice Through the Looking Glass in May continuing the Mad Hatter theme.
Though we don’t claim to be 100% sane, we will say that conditions have improved drastically around a Hatter’s Workshop. Come on in and see for yourself and while you’re here, feel free to try on any of our 9000 fabulous hats.