Origins of “Mad As A Hatter”

The phrase “mad as a hatter,” contrary to popular association with Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” did not originate from the novel. Carroll described the Hatter as mad but never used the exact phrase. The earliest documented use of “mad as a hatter” was in the 1829 short story “Noctes Ambrocianæ” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, suggesting the phrase was already in common usage by that time. Its usage continued in literature, notably in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s 1835 work “The Clockmaker.”

“Mad as a hatter” likely refers to a real condition that hat makers in the 17th century experienced, known as “mad hatter’s syndrome” or “hatter’s shakes.” The condition, prevalent among hat makers, was first detailed in 1829 by a Russian physician. It remained a significant occupational hazard through the 19th century and even into the mid-20th century in the United States.

The root cause of mad hatter’s syndrome was mercury poisoning, a consequence of hat-making practices that began in 17th-century France. Hat makers used mercury nitrate in a process called “carroting” to treat animal fur (from rabbits or beavers) to make felt for hats. This process involved the use of mercury nitrate, which made the stiffer outer hairs of the fur soften and become limp, facilitating hat production. The lack of safety measures meant that hat makers were continually exposed to toxic mercury vapors.

Mercury poisoning symptoms are diverse and severe, impacting various body systems including neurological functions. The neurological symptoms pertinent to Madhatter’s syndrome included abnormal sensations in limbs, muscle tremors, mood changes, and mental deterioration. Those suffering from mercury poisoning often exhibited anxiety, extreme timidity, and irritability, earning them the label of being “mad.”

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the symptoms of mercury poisoning were seen merely as a side effect of hat making, with little attention given to their serious health implications. In America, the condition was also known as the “Danbury Shakes,” named after a prominent hat-making town. In 1860, physician Addison Freeman highlighted “Mercurial Disease Among Hatters,” but his observations were largely ignored by the industry at that time, reflecting the era’s general apathy towards occupational health hazards.

The Mad Hatter as a Social Commentary

Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in “Alice in Wonderland” extends beyond mere whimsy. Some interpret the Mad Hatter as a critique of England’s mistreatment of its workers and the mentally ill during the Victorian era. This interpretation brings to light the hazardous conditions faced by workers in industries like textiles, where exposure to toxins such as mercury and lead was common. The character becomes a symbol of the era’s disregard for the health and safety of its labor force.

Tarrant Hightopp, portrayed by Johnny Depp in the film adaptations of “Alice in Wonderland,” offers a modern take on the classic Mad Hatter character. This iteration, while rooted in Lewis Carroll’s original creation, brings a contemporary edge to the character’s portrayal. The evolution of the Mad Hatter from a literary figure to a cinematic icon reflects changing perceptions and artistic interpretations of this enigmatic character.

The Mad Hatter transcends Carroll’s narrative, making appearances in various forms of popular culture. Notably, the Mad Hatter emerges as a supervillain in the Batman comic series, debuting in 1948. This adaptation portrays him as a scientist with mind-controlling capabilities, a stark contrast to Carroll’s whimsical, if troubled, character. This foray into the comic world highlights the versatility and enduring appeal of the Mad Hatter as a cultural icon.

The historical context of mercury use in hat-making raises important questions about workplace safety and health regulations in modern industries. The transition from perilous 19th-century practices to current safety standards serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of regulatory oversight in protecting workers.

The Reality of Mercury Poisoning Today

Mercury poisoning in the current context is a serious health concern, primarily due to its toxic effects on the nervous system, digestive system, and kidneys. Modern industrial and environmental regulations have significantly reduced the risk of mercury exposure in industries, including hat-making. However, mercury exposure still occurs through certain industrial processes, contaminated food, and improper disposal of mercury-containing items.


One of the key benefits today is the heightened awareness and strict safety regulations surrounding the use of mercury. Workers in industries that might still use mercury are now better protected with safety equipment and work in well-ventilated areas, drastically reducing the risk of mercury poisoning. Additionally, there’s more comprehensive monitoring and treatment for mercury exposure, ensuring that cases are identified and managed promptly.


Despite advancements, there’s still a risk of mercury poisoning in certain industries and regions. Artisanal gold mining, for example, often uses mercury and can expose workers to hazardous levels. In some countries, regulations may not be as stringent or well-enforced, leaving workers vulnerable.

Elimination of Mercury Use

In the hat-making industry specifically, the use of mercury has been eliminated. Modern methods of hat production do not involve mercury, meaning that the risk of “mad hatter syndrome” in this industry is virtually nonexistent today. The shift to safer practices in hat-making is a testament to the impact of improved industrial safety standards.

Mercury poisoning remains a broader environmental concern. Environmental contamination can occur through industrial emissions, leading to mercury accumulation in the food chain, particularly in fish. Public health advisories often focus on minimizing the consumption of certain types of fish known to contain higher mercury levels to reduce the risk of poisoning.

Learning from the Past

For you, as a worker or employer today, this historical lesson emphasizes the importance of recognizing and mitigating occupational hazards. The shift from the perilous conditions of the 19th-century hat-making industry to today’s regulated work environments showcases the evolution of workplace safety, reminding you of the significance of continual vigilance and improvement in occupational health practices.

The story behind “Mad as a Hatter” has played a crucial role in shaping current health and safety regulations in various industries. Understanding this history helps you appreciate the stringent measures in place today to protect workers from toxic substances. Industries that once exposed workers to hazardous materials like mercury now prioritize safety equipment, proper ventilation, and regular health check-ups, ensuring a safer working environment for everyone.

This historical context underscores the need for ongoing education and awareness about workplace safety. As an employee, being informed about the potential risks and safety protocols of your work environment is crucial. Employers, on the other hand, are reminded of their responsibility to provide safe working conditions and to educate their employees about safety practices. This culture of safety awareness helps prevent occupational diseases and accidents, contributing to a healthier and more productive workforce.

A Reminder for Future Safety Innovations

The evolution of the phrase “mad as a hatter” into a symbol of occupational health risks serves as a continuous reminder of the need for innovation in workplace safety. As technology and industries evolve, so too should the approaches to ensuring worker health and safety. This historical example encourages you to stay abreast of new safety technologies and practices, ensuring that the well-being of workers remains a top priority in all industries.

The history behind the phrase “mad as a hatter” is not just a curious anecdote from the past; it’s a powerful reminder of the journey towards safer work environments. It highlights the importance of recognizing workplace hazards, the necessity of stringent safety regulations, the value of education and awareness, and the need for ongoing innovation in occupational health and safety.