The Australian Ballet

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Mad as a Hatter

Mad hatter 2

John Tenniel Illustration from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1890

The curious origin story of our favourite tap-dancing character.

By the time Lewis Carroll penned the now world-famous children’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ had been in the cultural vernacular for over 35 years. Contrary to popular belief, Carroll wasn’t the first to use the phrase, it had appeared in an article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1829 and was later published in William Makepeace Thackeray’s (author of Vanity Fair) novel Pendennis 1849.

Behind Ballet travels back several centuries to discover deadly beginnings of what it meant to be a ‘Mad Hatter’.

“In that direction,’ the Cat said, waving the right paw ’round, ‘lives a Hatter; and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like; they’re both mad.” — Cheshire Cat, Alice’s Adven­tures in Wonderland
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John Tenniel's Illustration of The Hatter, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Mad Hatter Doesn’t Actually Exist

Before we start, we need to acknowledge that Lewis Carroll never wrote a character called the 'Mad Hatter'. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does include an eccentric and colourful character wearing a ostentatious hat, but he is simply called The Hatter. The Hatter is first introduced by the smiling feline, the Cheshire Cat.

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Jarryd Madden
Photo Simon Eeles

His Distinctive Hat

The tall colourful top hat the Hatter wears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the most recognisable costume designs in popular culture. The tall crown has a large card stuck in the brim with the numbers 10/6 drawn on it. 10/6 represents 10 shillings and a sixpence or the price of a hat in the mid 19th-century. Essentially, the Hatter has left the price tag on his hat in what has become an iconic piece recreated at fancy dress parties the world over.

Mercury Poisoning

One of the first written accounts of mercury poisoning was by Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus in 1533. During the 18th and 19th centuries mercury was a common ingredient used in the production of hats, garments, thermometers, clocks, appliances, weapons and medicines.

Mad Hatter Disease

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Fur industry hat making instructions, 1858.

It wasn’t until the 19th-century that doctors identified the so called ‘mad hatter’ disease among milliners. When the hatters began to show bizarre symptoms after many years in the industry it was discovered that the mercury used in the process to felt animal fur called ‘carroting’ was the cause. Carroting is a mixture of mercury and nitric acid resulting in an orange-coloured solution that generates toxic mercury vapours.

Old fashioned beaver hats

Modifications of the Beaver hat, 1892
Credit Londres E. Stanford

The fabric would need to be soaked in large amounts of mercury salts and workers would be exposed to what we now know is a toxic substance for long periods of time. Hat makers and clothing manufacturers who handled mercury risked developing tremors, physical weakness, headaches, general pain and an irregular heartbeat.

The neurological effects of this type of mercury poisoning called Erethism included behavioural changes, irritability, depression, memory loss and in extreme cases delirium.

Erethism:

A type of mercury poisoning also known as erethismus mercurialis, mad hatter disease, or mad hatter syndrome. Erethism is a neurological disorder which affects the central nervous system.

Mercury in Modern Times

While mercury is a naturally occurring, chemical element found in the Earth's crust, it's use in consumer products has declined since the 19th-century. Mercury can still be found in antique clocks, batteries, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, electronics, lightbulbs, skin cream, fish, and cars produced before 2003.

Fortunately, the practice of using mercury in hat making was stopped in France and England around the turn of the 20th century. The US faded out mercury in the 1900s, banning the use of mercury nitrate in 1941.

In 2011, the European Union banned the export of mercury. In Australia, we have very strict rules for importing and exporting dangerous chemicals like mercury to prevent exposure to the public and potential environmental threats.

Luckily for us, the Mad Hatter exists only in Lewis Carroll's fairy tale, enjoying a never-ending tea party on an unbirthday.

"Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s re-mark seemed to have no meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English." - Lewis Car­roll, Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, 1865
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Yuumi Yamada, Principal Artist Ako Kondo, Drew Hedditch and Timothy Coleman, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© (Wheeldon) 2019
Photo Kate Longley

To experience the 'madness' of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland© for yourself

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland©