If you know Lewis Carrol’s classic story “Alice in Wonderland,” you’ll be familiar with the Hatter. He’s often referred to as the Mad Hatter, and for good reason: Alice’s encounter with the Hatter involves a never-ending tea party, nonsensical poetry and impossible riddles.
Carrol was likely inspired to create the Hatter by real-life people who were far less whimsical. Back in the days when felt hats (like the ones made with beaver furs traded at Fort Edmonton) were popular, there were men called “hatters” who would spend their days making them. In order to make the furs from the beaver felt actually stick together hatters would use a process called “carrotting”. This process involved the use of a solution called “nitrate of mercury.” It is now known that direct contact with mercury is very dangerous, but at the time hatters would use this metal in poorly ventilated rooms for long periods of time. This would often lead to mercury poisoning which was characterized by confusion, difficulty speaking, memory loss and bodily tremors (sometimes called “hatter’s shakes”). These symptoms were often referred to as “mad hatter syndrome,” leading to the common expression “mad as a hatter.”
It is also interesting to note that the expression “mad as a March hare” was also popular at the time “ maybe that’s why the March Hare was one of the Hatter’s companions at the tea party!
If you’re interested, you can ask an interpreter in the Trade Store of the 1846 Fort to show you a real beaver felt hat. Beaver felt hats were in demand across much of Europe “ think how many hats that would be! You can imagine how many people would have been needed to make all of these hats!
This post is part of a 6-part series called “Why do we say that?“