We are very well aware, the hatter from Alice in Wonderland is Mad.

Actor playing the role of the mad hatter

In reality the writer Lewis Carroll, called him simply Hatter without the adjective we know him for, added in the following versions. After all it was not strictly necessary to stress out what it was already obvious to the eyes of everyone.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

The way of saying “mad as a hatter” had been popular for a long time in Great Britain. Perhaps it wasn’t even too far from “mad as a March hare”, indicating an eccentric person, or “mad as a wet hen”, which means someone very angry.

The motto about the hatter could be just made up, with no reference to the real world. As for the character of Carroll, the Hatter could be the personification of Theophilus Carter, eccentric furniture dealer who built extravagant watches, like the one without hours of the Mad Hatter, and used to wear the top hat.

There could be another explanation though, way more unsettling about the weird character that the Mad Hatter was. This is related to the method of construction of the male hats, essential accessory for the gentlemen of the 17/1800.

The hat industry was renovated in the first decades of the 1700, when the application of mercury was implemented, allowing  to save both time and money during the operation of the felt. The Huguenots in France found this method out, kept it secret for a while and then exported it to Great Britain, country in which no elegant man would have renounced to his top hat.

Victorian Gentlemen

The hatters immersed leather of small animals such as rabbits, hares, or beavers in a solution of mercury nitrate, of an orange colour, which would help to quickly separate fur from leather. So much mercury was inhaled at that stage plus they were absorbing further more of it while dividing the two layers with their bare hands. After that they would boil the fur which was at that point compacted by the mercury in water, where they had dissolved other chemicals to felt it: this passage was nothing better, still handling poisonous substances with their hands, gloves free. Then there was the moulding of the felt, by that point toxic as well, to then finally finishing the product with refined fabrics such as leather or silk.

Different phases of production

In Great Britain and France, where the hat industry was at its highest potential, a silent slaughter began.

The workers dealing with the mercury rarely reached the 50 years old and many of their children died in their early years

The symptoms of mercury intoxication were clear: uncontrolled trembling of their hands, yellow spots on their skin, excessive thinness, a odd orange tone almost fluorescent of their hair, and an odd extravagant behaviour, sometimes dangerous, that maybe pulled the trigger of the way of saying about their madness.

The orange headed Mad Hatter – 1921

And if the figure that Carroll told us about was an innocent and funny caricature, certainly the workers who would get poisoned by mercury were certainly not so.

The Mad Hatter Syndrome, called Erethism, led to irritability, depression, a pathological form of shyness, delirium, tremors, spasms and loss of memory.

The poisoning from mercury struck the workers of the factories of hats and never the clients that would buy the final product, as they would never come into contact with the toxic felt. Maybe it was for that reason that the mercury was kept in the production, despite his danger was a known thing since the end of 1700, all the way to the middle of the last century.

At the beginning of 1900 the government of France, Great Britain and Russia finally abolished the application of mercury from the textile industry. In the US, instead this happened in 1941 and not even with a specific law; the government simply imposed to the hatters to replace the substance with another one to felt the leather (hydrogen peroxide, already known since 1874 yet never employed). At the time mercury was necessary in the war industry, so this delayed its replacement.

Hatter from the US – 1938

After 200 years of useless deads, the situation was finally managed. But even though the  “mad hatters” are not anymore part of our societies, that idea of better profits at all costs, even in terms of human lives, is still a popular concept.

All picture are in the public domain

Vanilla Magazine - History, Culture, Mistery and Legends