Posted in Education, history, Library, literature, pop culture, teaching, Uncategorized

Mad as a Hatter

Occasionally, I do research things other than crafts and educational activities. History is a subject, like I mentioned in the Teaching Teens Tolerance post, that is sugar coated and glazed over a lot in my opinion. I am going to try to post interesting historical tidbits now and then to better help bring history to life and in turn (hopefully) inspire you and your kids to want to learn more. This post is rated PG-13.

With the release of the new Alice in Wonderland movie (which I heard has mixed reviews, I personally haven’t seen it yet) I decided to put up a post about Mad Hatter Disease, which is still a term used today for mercury poisoning. 

 

The felt hat industry started in the 1600’s namely in France, and migrated to England in the early 1800’s. Basically, it was found that a mercury complex made the process of turning fur into felt much easier. In turn, hatters would be breathing in these chemicals. During this time, workshops were not monitored or kept to any sort of standards so most were poorly ventilated.

Most people know by now that hat-makers were known to be mad because of the mercury in the felt. The story of how this came to be is kind of gross but in a nutshell, hatters were using urine to process fur into felt prior to mercury. One hatter, who was being treated for syphilis with mercury, seemed to have the best felt product. People started to see the connection and used mercury instead. The validity of this account isn’t one I would bank on but I have seen it mentioned more than once.

Once mercury starts to accrue in someone’s system the following things can (and did) happen:

  • “Hatter’s shakes” (trembling)
  • Tooth decay and loss
  • Excess drooling
  • Coordination problems
  • Irritability and depression
  • Anxiety and nervousness
  • Hallucinations and paranoia
  • Antisocial behavior or extreme aggression

 

Mercury poisoning is not a thing of the past. Mercury can still be found in things like:

  • Fish such as tuna, shark, and salmon (also why pregnant women are advised to not eat these in excess)
  • Pesticides
  • Some cosmetics
  • Adhesives
  • Air conditioner filters
  • Dental fillings called “silver fillings”

 

Obviously, the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is probably the most famous of all the hatters who have lived. However, there are others who made an impression on our history who you may not be aware of.

For instance, Boston (Thomas) Corbett. Boston Corbett grew up in New York after his family emigrated there when he was seven in 1839. He became a hatter and soon after was married. Tragically his wife died in childbirth, as did their infant. He became severely depressed and moved to Boston. As the tale goes, he was drunk one night walking the streets and heard a preacher. That experience apparently turned him into a religious fanatic and he grew out his hair and beard to look more like Jesus. Even more strange (and painful) was the fact that he castrated himself in order to not have any feelings of lust (with a pair of scissors I might add).

Once the Civil War erupted he did end up joining the Union Army. His high morals seemed to get him into trouble during his training and first attempts to serve. When his commanding officers would swear, Corbett would step forward to protest, which as you can imagine did not go well.

What Corbett is famous for however, is not his eccentric behavior, but for being the man who killed John Wilkes Booth. As detective Everton Conger tried to smoke Booth out of a barn by setting it on fire, Corbett crept up to an opening in the barn door and shot him in the neck.
Theophilus Carter, was an eccentric furniture maker and inventor, who always wore a top hat. He displayed his invention the Alarm Clock Bed at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. The bed was supposed to tip the sleeper out of their at the set time. Carter is believed to be the inspiration behind Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.

 

 

Some reading recommendations for those interested in Mad Hatters:

 

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Author:

I am writer, librarian, teacher, mother, cartoon addict, doodler, and coffee/tea enthusiast.

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