Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What Made the Mad Hatter Mad?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Susan reports:

Yet one more film version of Lewis Carroll's 1865 fantastical novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland has been launched upon the world, and in this incarnation, it's the Mad Hatter who takes center stage, on the screen and in the advertising. While being portrayed by Johnny Depp probably has something to do with it, the Hatter remains one of the more memorably irrational characters in a book that is full of them. He's also one of the first characters in English literature whose actions are driven by the power of fashion combined with the effects of occupational bio-hazards.

Beaver-felt hats for Western European gentlemen were one of those rare fashions that didn't linger just a season or two, but instead lasted for centuries. First appearing about 155o, the hats did change shape over time, from the tall-crowned ones worn by Elizabethan courtiers, to the wide-brimmed cavalier hats with floating plumes in the 1630s, to the ubiquitous black three-corner cocked hats of the 18th century, and, finally, to the tall-crowned styles favored by the Victorians (and Abraham Lincoln.) All were created from felt made of beaver fur, and all were the work of the hatters' trade.

Beaver hats were expensive. Not only was the raw material – beaver pelts – imported from North America (Scandinavian beavers were largely extinct by 1600), but the manufacture was a lengthy and complicated process, with the finer details closely guarded by the hatters themselves. Beaver hats were the mark of a gentleman, a status symbol that, once purchased, was carefully tended.

But the real cost wasn't to the customers' pockets, but to the hatters. Here's a complete explanation of the hat making process. Several steps involve the use of a "nitrate of mercury" to help transform the fur, which disastrously also transformed the hatters themselves. Constant exposure to the fumes attacked their nervous systems, leading to uncontrolled twitching, lurching, stammering, general strange behavior, and, too often, an early death.

Yet the prevailing logic wasn't that being a hatter made a man mad, but that only crazy men became hatters. As long as beaver hats remained in fashion, the trade was regarded as a good, prosperous one to pursue, and there was seldom a shortage of willing apprentices.

The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would certainly have been aware of the strange behavior of hatters. He was born in Stockport, a town in Greater Manchester that was historically a center of hat making. The expression "mad as a hatter" was already in common usage by 1857, when the boys in Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays refer to a classmate as being "mad as a hatter" – interestingly, a boy with a scientific bent who nearly blows up the dormitory with his "mad" chemical experiments.

While modern medical historians claim that Carroll's Hatter doesn't really display the clinical effects of mercury poisoning, it still seems likely that Carroll intended his readers to see the character as the irrational embodiment of an everyday expression. As for Tim Burton interpreting the Hatter as having bright orange hair: well, why not?

So what about the madness of the March Hare, another guest at Alice's tea party? His goofy expression has a much more innocuous explanation. March is the mating season for wild hares, who do indeed go crazy in pursuit of one another. The straw tucked into his ears is supposed to represent a recent amatory conquest in the field: the bunny version of a role in the hay. Ah, spring!

Above: The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

10 comments:

Mari said...

Charming Article...I am finding more and more all our expressions have a logical basis!

Posey said...

What an informative post. People think biohazards, pollution, and environmental hazards are modern dangers, but sometimes the ones in the past were even worse than those we have today.
I know I'll be showing my age, but as I read this I kept hearing the bitter old Graham Parker song "I've Got Mercury Poisoning" Or am I the only one old enough to remember that? lol

Mme.Tresbeau said...

I had never realized the connection between the Canadian fur traders and men's hats. I had always thought the furs were only for fur coats and hats and such. Thank you for that informative link. As for the grotesque new version of "Alice", I would much rather look again at the old Tenniel pictures.

Rowenna said...

Mme Tresbeau--I fear I must agree with you and take refuge in my battered copy of Looking Glass.

Given that doctors were using mercury as a treatment at the time, it makes sense that no one would have assumed it was the chemicals driving the hatters mad, unfortunately. Good old mercury, all kinds of wonderful uses. I wonder when they figured it out...

Emma J said...

I'm with you. I am so boycotting that movie. I hate it when movies trash classic books like this. It looks like all special effects and nothing else.

American Duchess said...

This is absolutely fascinating! I did not know that it was the Hatter's job to felt the wool/fur, and that it was during this process that they were exposed to the chemicals. Absolutely intriguing, AND because of YOU (and House of Nines Design), I've become obsessed with blocked hats and intent on learning how to make them! (minus the mercury, thank you, lol). Thanks!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks for the thoughtful comments! I have to say that while the new Tim Burton "Alice" didn't look like my cup of tea (mad or not), my husband and kids went this weekend to see it in the triple-whammy-experience of big-screen IMAX plus 3-D, and they LOVVVVVED it. I'm still not convinced, but willing to allow that there might be other opinions out there. *g*

Posey, I'd forgotten that song by Graham Parker, but now that you've reminded me, I'm having a hard time putting it from my head, too.

Rowenna, it's easy to forget that mercury was, as you say, once regarded as something of a miracle drug, prescribed for everything from syphilis to croupy babies. Makes you wonder what we routinely take today that, in another 100 years or so, will be as soundly denounced.

American Duchess, I'm in awe of you wanting to make your own hats. Though thinking again of all the steps -- besides the mercury, there was also that part about putting your hands into the boiling water to shape the hat! –– I'm wondering if I should have put a "don't try this at home" disclaimer to the link. However, since you're a Duchess, you likely know that already. *g*

Jen Hiroki said...

Very interesting blog, thank you for it. I have not seen the film yet, but I want to because of Johnny Depp who is always interesting in everything.

nightsmusic said...

I think one of the things that amazes me is how extreme we've gotten, from one end, where I played with mercury rolling around on my desk in school, to now where, if there is one drop the size of the tip of a needle, the school is shut down for days and a bio-hazard team has to come through and disinfect everything.

As for the movie, I don't know that I'll be watching it. I think sometimes there are things better left alone. But that's just me.

Lori said...

Wonderful post. I saw the new movie a couple weeks ago and loved it. I remarked afterward that it's the first time I'd really ahd sympathy for the Hatter, and not because it was Depp playing him. He did such a great job portraying him and the part was written sympathetically.

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