Mad Hatter

Or Mercury Poisoning

Post Renaissance but certainly during the Victorian era, the term Mad Hatter came into being.  And certainly at each and every faire you will probably see some shop named the Mad Hatter.  Now, the term is certainly tied to the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland fame but it is actually a term that relates to mercury poisoning a disease that struck people that worked in the millinery trade.

Mad as a Hatter or a mad hatter refers to mercury poisoning.   Especially during the Victorian age, lots of headgear was made out of fur-felt.  One of the chemicals used during the process of curing animal hides.  The shops where the hats were being made had poor ventilation.  Thus, the hat makers or hatters were driven made from breathing the fumes of the mercury that was being used to make their products.

The Mercury poisoning caused the following symptoms:  paraesthesias (tingling, burning or numbness of the skin), vision and hearing impairment, irritability, depression, slurred speech, anxiety, hallucinations, lack of coordination, and tremors.  I can’t imagine my job causing all of these potential problems, though there are times that my speech is slurred after a little too much writing.  The hatters would work in these hazardous environments and their symptoms would get worse and worse.  As they continued to work their actions would become more and more erratic until they could not work anymore.  These poor people were branded as crazy and it was not until later that we found out as a society that they were actually being effected by the career choice they made and poor working conditions.

Now, flash forward to Alice in Wonderland.  Lewis Carroll picked a job that was tied to this malady to make one of the most odd and humorous characters in his story.  Adding humor and a little bit of scary to the world of Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter was truly mad, due to the profession that he chose.  Especially in the Tim Burton version of the story, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp) is mad.  You can almost see him inhaling the fumes as he works on the very hat that he wears in the movie.  Maybe that is the hat that shoved him over the line.

So, next time you see something named the Mad Hatter or you hear someone refer to someone as being ‘mad as a hatter,’ you will have a little bit of background on the term.  You can also cast back into time and realize that maybe your job isn’t that bad.  You might get paper cuts from pushing paper in cube-world but I bet it doesn’t drive you crazy… of course, when I pulled that gig it did drive me a little mad.  And when you don your tricorne or top hat at the next faire or festival, think about the poor soul that might have been driven round the bend to make your costume.