Before you jump to assumptions about what you think this post is going to be about, read on my fellow pressers.
On this beautiful sunny day, I was brainstorming all of the things I wanted to write about. How long summer really is in Canada, the Mediterranean dish I made for lunch, weird things my dog does when he sees birds, the books I’ve finished and adjectives that describe each section during band rehearsal were all topics I’d considered and will potentially touch upon in future posts. But my mind veered off in a different direction entirely when I was reading through some articles and one of the phrases used stuck in my brain like flies on poop; the expression “mad as hatter”.
What does that phrase even mean?
Of course, being the literary nerd that I am, immediately thought of Lewis Caroll. His ‘Hatter’ character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865. The Hatter is not described explicitly as mad in the story- merely a participant at ‘a mad-tea party’. Although, he can hardly be called sane, as he is often portrayed as quite unhinged along with the other characters.
‘In that direction,’ the Cat said, ‘ lives a hatter: and in that direction, lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.” (Caroll, 34).
In fact, I think the Cheshire Cat and Alice are the only sane characters in this story. But that is a discussion or perhaps an essay for another time.
Anyway, the phrase didn’t originate with Caroll and inquiring minds want to know so….
In the 1800s, hat makers were exposed to mercury during the felting process. This was known to have an affect on the hatters nervous systems, causing them to tremble and appear insane. The use of mercury compounds in 19th century hat making and the resulting effects are well-established, and mercury poisoning is known today as “Mad Hatter’s disease”.
One can only assume Caroll may have taken inspiration for the Mad Hatter from the known unusual behaviour of Hatters and of Theophilus Carter, who was an Oxford cabinet maker and furniture dealer with reputation for eccentric behaviour. The Cap, or in Carter’s case the top hat, certainly fits. He was something of a ‘mad inventor’ and came up with the alarm clock bed, which woke people by tipping the bed over (HILARIOUS!) Caroll would have been familiar with the sight of Carter, in full top hat outside of his shop.