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Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

Until recently, I had always thought that the Mad Hatter was the pure invention of the dark wizard of children’s stories, Lewis Carroll.  But like with Alice, Carroll drew, in part, from historical context to develop the more-than-just-zany character we’ve come to hold in both our hearts and in our fears.

Mad Tea Party

Mad Hatter Poem

Hats of every kind, plumed and adorned in the 1800s and simple and structured in the early 1900s, topped the heads of women and men of every social status.  They were signs of wealth, occupation, military involvement, and fashion bravery.  Hat makers, or milliners, were lauded as masters of the artform and were assigned to Queens and other royalty as personal designers.  As the millinery trade became more widely employed, the hat manufacturing process was vastly improved upon to garner greater quality and larger scale production.

Antique Hat Types

Photo by: Lee Sutton (www.flickr.com/photos/lvsutton)

From the 1800s until December 1, 1941, the use of nitrate of Mercury, or mercurialism, dominated the curing process of felt.  It began as a secret passed down through milliners in mid-18th century France:  a chemical that could soften stiff rabbit fur hairs while keeping them clumped together – a process that made the fur pliable, obedient, and easily molded.  And completely covered in a poisonous substance!

Women in Hat Factory

1930 Hat Factory

The mercury permeated the felt and as hatters inhaled felt dust and licked the points of finishing brushes, the toxic substance was introduced into their bloodstream.  As the practice became more popular, the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ entered everyday slang as hat factory workers began to exhibit a unique combination of strange behaviors, coined Erethism.

Erethism

Symptoms typically include sensory impairment (vision, hearing, speech), disturbed sensation and a lack of coordination.

An abnormal state of exitement or irritation, either general or local, may be caused by exposure to mercury vapours.

Mad as a Hatter

July, 14 1880. New York Times. "The hatter, then, is a hatter because he is mad and not mad because he is a hatter."

It wasn’t until 1910, when Dr. Alice Hamilton led research on occupational toxic poisoning through the Occupational Diseases Commission of Illinois, that she discovered that the “strange behaviours” exhibited by millinery workers were actually the devastating result of mercury poisoning.

Alice Hamilton

Dr. Alice Hamilton

In 1925, she published her research, making it the first text in the field of Industrial Toxicology, and devoted an entire chapter to hatters.  Industrial Poisons of the United States empowered the US Bureau of Labor and workers alike to call for the ban of mercury in hat factories.

Hatters Mercury Ban Anniversary Party

1955. The "real" mad hatter party

And though hatters are no longer prone to the effects of toxic mercury nitrate, the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ is still in use.  Oh, and to answer the Mad Hatter’s riddle and title of this post, I think it best to leave it to the raving wildman himself:

Mad Hatter Riddlexoxo!

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