V75: The True Origin of “Mad as a Hatter”

Here’s a random bit of trivia for you to pull out at your next Mad Men cocktail party…

The Mad Hatter, illustration by John Tenniel , 1865

Where Does the Phrase “Mad as a Hatter,” or “Mad Hatter” come from?

Today we are most familiar with “The Mad Hatter” from Lewis Carroll’s famous “Alice in Wonderland,” but the saying goes back further than Carroll’s 1865 publication, and potentially had nothing at all to do with the crafters of fine headwear.

The common belief is that the name “Mad Hatter” references the fate of hatmakers who suffered from consistent inhalation of mercury, a chemical commonly used in the curing of hat felts. The long term effects of breathing mercury everyday included uncontrollable twitching, trembling, and demented behavior. It makes perfect sense to us today, when we imagine the illustrative renditions of Carroll’s famous character.

The Depp-Burton version of the character, entirely obnoxious, but creative. For the record, his hat is really quite spectacular, though doesn’t appear to be made of fur felt…

However, the phrase “Mad as a Hatter” was not invented by Carroll, and was in use in literature as far back as 1829. Even prior, the phrase was in common use in England and is very possibly an evolution of a phrase of an entirely different meaning, “mad as an atter,” with the meaning “as venomous as a snake,” rather than as kooky as a hat maker, “atter being the original Anglo-Saxon form of “adder,” and “mad” being synonymous with “venomous,” as well as crazy and angry.

I bite you!

Of course, mercury-poisoned hatters makes for a far more interesting story, and is not at all untrue. Vaporized mercury was indeed used to remove the fur used in fur felt hats, such as beaver hats, from the pelts, to then matt into the felts. Steaming and ironing fur felts into shape kept all that mercury in the air, and on the skin, and lead to all kinds of horrible side effects.

A beaver felt hat, all the rage for particularly men’s headwear in the 19th and early 20th c.

So there you have it.  Amaze your friends and impress your boss over the miniature franks and martini olives. 🙂


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