Mad as a Hatter


Bearing in mind that Ellwood & Co. made felt hats for the Indian trade, including the military, I thought the following might be of interest.

“Mad hatters disease was a physical disorder that affected the nervous system and was caused by inhaling toxic fumes from mercury nitrate, a chemical used in the felting process. As well as the damage caused to the lungs the fumes affected the brain which led to paralysis, loss of memory, mental derangement and eventual death.

As tragic as this was hat workers did not get much sympathy and victims of the condition were mocked in the nineteenth century and treated as drunkards (although hat workers were notorious for quenching their thirst caused by the dust and fumes of their occupation).

The term ‘Mad as a Hatter’ was made famous by Lewis Carroll in his novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which was published in 1865 a year after the Factory Act of 1864 was passed, which among other things, required proper ventilation in workshops. In the scene where the Hatter is being tried by the King, the King notices that the Hatter looks uneasy and anxious, and trembles so that he took both his shoes off – “Don’t be nervous”, said the King, “or I’ll have you executed on the spot!” Carroll describes here the symptoms of a sufferer in the first stages of the disease.” 1

“The earliest known printed citation of the phrase that I know of is from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, January-June 1829. It appears in a section of the magazine headed Noctes Ambrocianæ. No. XL1V, in a fictional conversation between a group of characters that wouldn’t have been out of place in Wonderland:

NORTH: Many years – I was Sultan of Bello for a long period, until dethroned by an act of the grossest injustice ; but I intend to expose the traitorous conspirators to the indignation of an outraged world.
TICKLER (aside to SHEPHERD.): He’s raving.
SHEPHERD (to TICKLER.): Dementit.
ODOHERTY (to both.): Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.” 2


Stuart Bates


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