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