The Myth of the Mad Hatter – Making a Victorian Top Hat

The Mad Hatter has become a character, rather than the reality of the 19th century. We hear about it as a macabre tale of Victorian ignorance- using a deadly poison for an industrial process and dismissing the warning signs. Though the phrase “mad as a hatter” had become common place before Alice in Wonderland, the origins and meaning weren’t as clear at the time. As health issues within the hatting industry continued to rise, research was done to better understand the symptoms and the cause. By mid century it was well established that mercury was a primary culprit, but it took nearly another century before the use of mercury in hat making was illegal. How did this practice last so long? And why did they end up using a poison in the first place? To understand better, we need to look at the problem through the experiences of those working the line, rather than judgmental doctors or sensational articles.

The simple answer is Carroting. It was a process that prepared the fur on the hides to be removed and felted to make the hat blanks. That fur then continued down the line, through a dozen or more hands, to become the hat sold in a store. At the time, the mercury solution was the most effective option for this process. Even if both the workers and the owners knew its danger. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries there was no sick leave, no job security, no unions, and very few laws or regulations for safety. So workers often ignored symptoms in order to continue working and owners had little incentive to improve.

1877 Report:…
The Danbury Shakes:…
Connecticut Magazine:…

Millinery Supplies:


Judith M Millinery Supply House…


About agogo22

Director of Manchester School of Samba at
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1 Response to The Myth of the Mad Hatter – Making a Victorian Top Hat

  1. And still today mercury is used for goldmining in the Amazone river areas. Greed is simply too strong.

    Liked by 1 person

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