As mad as a hatter
This phrase is used to indicate that someone is completely mad.
Mercury was often used to cure felts which were then used to make some types of hats. The process involved in curing the felt made it virtually impossible for the hatter to avoid inhaling the fumes given off by the chemical. Prolonged exposure to mercury resulted in the poison attacking the nervous system, causing the poor victim to appear confused – attacking their speech and causing them to suffer from distorted vision – and making them tremble, rather like a sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease. Prolonged exposure to mercury can also make the victim aggressive and cause mood swings and anti-social behaviour. Victims of mercury poisoning to this day are said to be suffering from Mad Hatter’s disease. So it seems a hatter could be mad in both senses of the word – in a foul mood as well as being mentally imbalanced.
The most famous mad hatter appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass. Carroll’s hatter, whilst playing upon the stereotypical image of the hatter, was actually based on a real person, Theophilus Carter, who, interestingly wasn’t a hatter but rather an eccentric cabinet-maker who was well-known in Oxford. Carter was a mad inventor type and came up with the alarm-clock bed which woke people up by tipping them out of bed – now why did that not catch on? He was a distinctive character on the Oxford streets dressed in a top hat, standing in front of his shop on the High Street.
The first reference to hatters being mad predates Carroll by some thirty years or so. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine of 1829 records the following fictional conversation, “NORTH: Many years – I was Sultan of Bello for a long period, until dethroned by an act of the grossest injustice ; but I intend to expose the traitorous conspirators to the indignation of an outraged world. TICKLER (aside to SHEPHERD.): He’s raving. SHEPHERD (to TICKLER.): Dementit. ODOHERTY (to both.): Mad as a hatter. Hand me a segar.”
In New Zealand a hatter is a name ascribed to a miner who works alone. Wakefield’s New Zealand After 50 Years of 1889 records the following explanation, “Miners who work alone are called ‘hatters’, one explanation of the term being that they frequently go mad from the solitude of their claim away in the bush, exemplifying the proverb ‘As mad as a hatter”. This use of the phrase clearly denotes that the connection between hatters and madness was well established, rather than suggesting that the solitary Antipodean miner was the origin of the phrase.
So, conclusively, the phrase owes its origin to the unfortunate side-effects of making hats. So now we know!