By this point, most people have read or at least seen a movie version of Alice in Wonderland. And if you’re anything like a large portion of the story’s fans, you probably love the Mad Hatter.
He’s pretty great, after all. That being said, the kooky, endearing disposition of the character really downplays the dark origin of his name.
The term “mad hatter” was once used to describe the mental state of people who worked in hat factories, specifically in the city of Danbury, Connecticut.
During the early days of the Industrial Revolution, poisonous mercuric nitrate was a primary component in the process of making hats.
Nowadays, you would need special equipment and training to handle that substance. Back in the 1800s, however, hatmakers handled mercuric nitrate with their bare hands for hours each day.
Mercuric nitrate was part of the solution in which animal skins were rolled during the hat-making process. This crude chemical bath turned the materials into more durable, malleable sheets of felt, which were then shaped and stitched by hand. Handling those chemicals all day quickly led to mercury poisoning in most factory workers. And Danbury, as America’s hat-making capital, soon had a huge health crisis on its hands.
Those suffering from mercury poisoning showed symptoms like drooling, pathological shyness, irritability, and tremors. Mercury poisoning was so common in Danbury that these side effects were referred to as the Danbury Shakes.
Although hundreds of people in Danbury were suffering, greedy factory workers continued exposing people to the substance.
Some symptoms of mercury poisoning are very similar to that of alcoholism, which bosses exploited back then to avoid addressing the concerns of their workers.
Sadly, working conditions didn’t improve for factory workers until just before World War II.
In the late 1800s, hatters unionized and demanded better working conditions. Their case was heard twice by the Supreme Court, but they lost both times. By the end of the Great Depression, the hat industry in Danbury had pretty much dried up.
In 1941, the state of Connecticut finally banned mercury from being used in the production of hats. While it was a significant victory, the impact of the decision was minimal, since there were only a handful of hat factories left in the state at that point. Today, there are none.
So there you have it, folks — the origin of the Mad Hatter’s strange moniker.
(source: New England Historical Society)
Those poor people. Just think about how horrible it must have been to deal with that illness.
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