Mad As A Hatter

Posted on 24/10/2013


I’m sure you’ve heard the term, “mad as a hatter?” That term simply implies that whomever such statement is directed at has gone completely mad. Absolutely bonkers. That could be commonly understood to mean crazy, although the original meaning is pretty vague and may have simply just meant being annoyed.

The Mad Hatter fictional character you find in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the story’s sequel Through the Looking-Glass was clearly inspired by the phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’ but there is some uncertainty as to the origins of this phrase. The wide belief was that the chemical element, Mercury was once employed in the process of curing felt used in making some hats, thereby making it impossible for hatters to avoid inhaling the mercury fumes given off during the hat making process; hatters and mill workers thus often suffered mad hatter disease, mercury poisoning causing neurological damage including confused speech and distorted vision. Hat making was the main trade in the English town of Stockport, near where Carroll grew up, and it was not unusual then for hatters to appear disturbed or confused; many dying early as a result of mercury poisoning.

Before then, the felt hat industry had been traced to the mid 17th century in France, and it was probably introduced into England some time around 1830. A story passed down in the hat industry gives this account of how mercury came to be used in the process: In Turkey camel hair was used for felt material, and it was discovered that the felting process was speeded up if the fibres were moistened with camel urine. It is said that in France workmen used their own urine, but one particular workman seemed consistently to produce a superior felt. This person was being treated with a mercury compound for syphilis, and an association was made between mercury treatment of the fibres and an improved felt. Eventually the use of solutions of mercuric nitrate was widespread in the felt industry, and mercury poisoning became endemic. Dementia and Erethism – the excessive sensitivity of a body part to stimuli, were indeed a common ailment among 19th Century hat makers. Erratic, flamboyant behavior was one of the most evident alterations caused by mercury. Others included excessive drooling, mood swings, and various other debilities, and severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, called ‘hatter’s shakes,’ distorted vision and confused speech. Advanced cases developed hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms. But Lewis Carroll did not invent the phrase, although he did create the character. The phrases ‘mad as a hatter’ and ‘mad as a March hare’ were common at the time Lewis Carroll wrote – 1865 was the first publication date of Alice, but the phrase had actually been in common use in 1837, almost 30 years earlier.

The earliest mention of a ‘mad hatter’ appears to refer to one Robert Crab, a 17th Century eccentric living at Chesham, England. He gave all his goods to the poor and lived on leaves and grass. Carroll, however, seems to have based his mad hatter not on Robert Crab, but on a certain Theophilus Carter, not a hatter but a furniture dealer, who was known locally as the Mad Hatter, partly because he always wore a top hat, and partly because he was quite an eccentric and produced some wacky inventions. Makers of felt hats would indeed often drool, tremble, talk to themselves and have bouts of severe paranoia, for reasons that only became clear later. Both in Europe and North America they were the eccentrics and madmen of the clothing trades, which gave rise to the phrase as used today.

Have you also ever heard about the ‘Danbury Shakes?’ The town of Danbury, Connecticut, in the United States of America, an important center of America’s hat-making industry until men’s hats went out of fashion in the 1960’s, developed its own reputation for madness. Regionally, Danbury, Connecticut has always been known as ‘Hat City.’ It was the hat making capital of the world in the 19th century. At the peak of the industry, five million hats a year were produced in 56 different factories in Danbury. A process called ‘carroting,’ involving washing animal furs with an orange-colored solution, containing nitrate, was used in the production. The colorful solution facilitated the separation of the fur from the pelt and made it mat together smoothly. Workers would often be exposed to mercury vapors in the steamy air.  Many hatters with long-term exposure, particularly those directly involved in the carroting process, got mercury poisoning. For the benefit of emphasis, Mercury poisoning attacks the nervous system, causing drooling, hair loss, uncontrollable muscle twitching, a lurching gait, and difficulties in talking and thinking clearly. Stumbling about in a confused state with slurred speech and trembling hands, affected hatters were sometimes mistaken for drunks. That’s how the ailment became known as ‘The Danbury Shakes.’

Additionally, according to a 1976 World Health Organisation report, acute mercury exposure has also given rise to psychotic reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal tendency. Occupational exposure has resulted in irritability, excitability, excessive shyness, and insomnia as the principal features of a broad-ranging functional disturbance. With continuing exposure, a fine tremor develops, initially involving the hands and later spreading to the eyelids, lips, and tongue, causing violent muscular spasms in the most severe cases. The tremor is reflected even in handwriting, which has a characteristic appearance.

The bowler hat once defined British civil servants and bankers, and later American workingmen. It was devised in 1849 by the London hat-makers Thomas and William Bowler to fulfil an order placed by the firm of hatters Lock & Co. of St James’s. Lock & Co. had been commissioned by a customer to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect gamekeeper’s  heads from low-hanging branches while on horseback. The keepers had previously worn top hats, which were easily knocked off and damaged. Lock & Co. then commissioned the Bowler brothers to solve the problem. The bowler, not the cowboy hat or Mexican sombrero, was the most popular hat in the American West. Both cowboys and railroad workers preferred the hat because it would not blow off easily in strong wind, or when sticking one’s head out the window of a speeding train. It was worn by both lawmen and outlaws, including Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, Black Bart, and, of course, Billy the Kid. (I loved those Wild Wild West stories…!)

The bowler, called a bombín in Spanish, has also been worn by Quechua and Aymara women since the 1920’s when it was introduced to Bolivia by British railway workers. During the 2nd war a gentleman’s outfitters on the German occupied island of Jersey, gave away its entire supply of bowlers to slave workers, mostly refugees from Spain and Morocco, plus Polish and Russian prisoners of war, and forced by the occupiers to build an Underground Hospital at St Lawrence. They gladly accepted these as the only form of head protection available to them. Another region that appreciates the bowler hat is the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. The men of this region use this hat as a fashion accessory, along with a walking stick – these fashion accessories, which have become a staple part of traditional costume, were introduced by British colonials in the 1900’s. But before then the rest of the world had a fixated image of what the African continent beheld. Writing in 1897, the New York Times summarized what the prevailing view of the so-called ‘Dark Continent’ was in the West:

“It is not unlikely that the most momentous change on the face of the earth in the next century will occur on the continent of Africa. Civilized nations are getting out of patience with its obstinate barbarism and making preliminary assaults on all sides that must sooner or later break down the barrier, that has from the beginning of time guarded the mysteries of the interiors and kept out the regenerating influence of civilization. Science is eager to know the secrets of its geography, its geology, its zoology, its ethnology, and governments and learned societies are ready to promote and push on its investigation. Trade is importunate for new realms to open up, and anxious to get at the unexplored treasures of the vast tropical regions in which intelligence and enterprise are yet to begin their work. Christian zeal is ready to lend its powerful aid in behalf of the salvation of those dusky millions that still bow down to wood and stone.”

This image of Africa obviously informed subsequent missionary, commercial, and colonial endeavors to the continent. Throughout the period of European domination in Africa, the attempt to elevate this degraded portion of the human race remained firmly embedded in the minds of these European groups, but more prominently in missionary circles. The contact between African societies and Europeans in the nineteenth century was based on this mission to civilize; a process that aimed to transform African societies as well as the identities of Africans. The preoccupation with this civilizing mission was expressed among different elements in European society. For the European missionaries and colonial officials, given the objectives of civilizing their African subjects, the formation of new identities was essential in this mission. The next two hundred years witnessed a rapid expansion of Christianity in Africa.

The European attempt to penetrate the African interior and extend their political and commercial influence from the late nineteenth century created a more favorable climate for Christian evangelical expansion. The imperial intrusion heralded new forces of change that would rudely alter the colonized people’s ways of life. These forces have continued to exert influences on the continent. As the alien culture arrived with imperial intents, the indigenous people responded in ambivalent contexts, resulting in changes and cultural hybrids that may defile any grand or simple analysis. The European merchants supported colonial rule in order to have a free reign in consolidating their commercial interests and investments, hence their active teamwork in the “civilizing” mission to transform African societies after the alien’s image. In the Niger Delta, particularly in the trading states of the Eastern Niger Delta, where secular officials of the British Crown and Christian missionaries came after the trading merchants in the nineteenth Century, these extra-territorial forces of change were united by one grand ideological interest: the imposition of ‘Whiteness’ on the Niger Delta for the ultimate sociopolitical, economic and cultural benefits of Great Britain as it attempted to establish its empire in West Africa during the nineteenth century. Over the period of colonial rule, the colonial officials succeeded in altering, to certain degrees, some of the embodied practices such as dance in much the same way that the economy, social and political structures, language, and manners of dress of indigenous populations were subject to changes. Perhaps the most evident area of a forced change can be found upon the Anglicized names predominant within the entire region – an amazing preponderance of classic English names: the Briggs, the Greens, the Whyte’s, the Tom’s, the Bob Manuels, and of course, the Jonathan’s.

This culture change is also very evident on the traditional dressing and attires. Traditionally, Men from the Delta regions wear the various symbolic attires of each tribe, either a long sleeved shirt with a George wrapper tied around their waist, or the colourful gold-buttoned, chained long-sleeved tops, with matching trousers, that seem to be the fashion these days. But the most prominent identity can be found in the bowler hat on top, and perhaps with the additional accessory of a gold-trimmed walking stick. Some would even stick a feather to it!

President Goodluck Jonathan has done a lot to place the traditions of his Ijaw peoples in the global space, insisting on wearing his traditional garb at most events, home and abroad, including hat, to boot! It has become his official uniform. He deserves commendations for that, certainly. However, as a national President, which he is by the way, he may also wish to seize the opportunity to shirk off the tribal affectation and portray many of the other, varied aspects of amazing Nigerian pride to the international market. Presidential protocol should also be guided by behavioral norms and accepted executive guidelines. They should be guided by international rules for etiquette.  Just one rule would suffice here: It is not acceptable in most parts of the world, especially in civilized society to wear hats, or caps, indoors. They are usually removed the moment a person steps inside a building. That is the norm. It is normal, civilized behaviour, for which non observance may even be regarded as acting either rude or prude, depending.

I was on a production set, teasing a South African film producer friend of mine, the other day. The topic was African presidents. I baited him about the image portrayed by South African President, Jacob Zuma’s international credentials, alongside the favourite topic at the time – the many wives of Zuma. I wasn’t prepared for his retort. He shot back at me: “Just like the many hats of your President Jonathan.” “Does he wear them to the bathroom?”

So, ok, you’ve heard the mad hatter’s tale. Have you heard the one about the classroom dunce? Now most modern dictionaries would describe a dunce as a stupid person, or a dolt. Or as a person who is slow to learn. With the many rather distasteful interpretations of hat wearing, except for service officials, professional duty, formal occasion, or fashion style, perhaps it would be welcoming for Mr. President to refresh his public image. What a pleasant surprise it would be to see the President come out in public donning a sharp business suit – that would send some signals! What with all the unfair flak his administration is getting from opposition camps, perhaps it’s time to change approach. Maybe it’s time to show some fangs. Perhaps it is time to “big up.’ The best thing to do – the one stop solution that puts every other perspective in place, would be to take off that hat, Mr. President. Just like the great gardener needs no fragrances to scent his roses, a true patriot, a real Nigerian, an original Ijaw boy, does not need to put on a hat to prove he is from the Niger delta.

If you permit me, I just couldn’t resist this final allusion: Did you grow up reading the Adventures of Tintin comic series? If you did, you would remember the silly escapades of Thomson and Thompson (If you read the French versions of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s classics, that would translate to  Dupond et Dupont), the fictional characters in The Adventures of Tintin, two incompetent detectives who provide much of the comic relief throughout the series. While the two are apparently unrelated as they have different surnames, they look like identical twins whose only discernible difference is the shape of their moustaches. They are afflicted with chronic spoonerisms, are extremely clumsy, thoroughly incompetent, and usually bent on arresting the wrong character. In spite of this, they somehow get entrusted with delicate missions. The detective with the flared, pointy moustache is Thomson, who often describes himself as “Thomson, without a ‘P’, as in Venezuela.” The detective with the flat, droopy moustache has described himself as “Thompson, with a ‘P’, as in ‘psychology,’ or ‘Philadelphia.’ Now, Thomson and Thompson usually wear bowler hats and carry walking sticks, except when abroad: during these missions they insist on wearing the stereotypical costume of the country they are visiting so that they blend into the local population, but instead manage to dress in folkloric attire that actually makes them stand apart.  Not so smart, they are. Could it be that bowler hat, perhaps?


God’s guidance, always.



Appreciation for research and reference material:

  1. The CMS Niger Mission, Extra-Territorial Forces of Change, and the Expansion of British Influence in the Niger Delta during the Nineteenth Century, written by Waibinte Wariboko.
  2. Conflict and Compromise: Christian Missions and New Formations in Colonial Nigeria, written by Chima J. Korieh.
  3. Various other online resources.