Reflections: Why was the hatter mad?
Why was the hatter mad?
By William L. Bulla
What is a Mad Hatter? He is not something we experience in our every day life. However, he is something we read about, even as children, in the story of "Alice in Wonderland", and again, "Through the Looking Glass."
Over the years we have read about both the Mad Hatter and his partner the March Hare. Both of these characters have seemed a bit mad.
Recently my friend Sean asked, "why do they say 'mad as a hatter'?" I said I thought it came from Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland". He told me I was wrong. He said it had to do with the mercury used in preserving the furs from which they made the hats. Of course, I didn't believe him so I decided I should look into the issue. Sean was right. It was the chemicals used in preserving the fur used in making hats that caused the hatter's to go "mad".
The most famous Mad Hatter, of course, is the one from the Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland, the partner of the March Hare. Both mad, of course. 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 the first publication of Alice In Wonderland in 1865. The phrase had been in common use in 1837, almost 30 years earlier. Carroll frequently used common expressions, songs, nursery rhymes, etc., as the basis for characters in his stories.
The origin of the phrase, it's believed, is that hatters really did go mad. The chemicals used in hat-making included mercury nitrate, used in curing felt. Prolonged exposure to the mercury vapors caused mercury poisoning. Victims developed severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, which became known as "hatter's shakes"; other symptoms included distorted vision and confused speech. Advanced cases developed hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.
The victims were the hatters, not the wearers of hats. The hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes, which would have been long dissipated, or of insignificant strength, by the time the hat was worn. This use of mercury is now subject to severe legal restrictions (if not banned) in the U.S. and Europe.
The March Hare and the Hatter make a brief reappearance in Alice Through the Looking Glass as the King's messengers, "Haigha" and "Hatta." These names are the only hint as to their identities other than the illustrations from the book published in 1871.
"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw round, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad."
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be, said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
So, who knows for sure? Maybe we all become a bit mad in March.
William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.