Mad as a Hatter — Wearing Vintage Hats


Alice was an impeccable milliner. She had learned how to make incredible felt for hats with camel hair from her Turkish father. He always insisted the felting process was sped up if the fibers were moistened with camel urine. However in France her co-workers used their own urine, but Alice consistently produced a superior felt and no one had any idea why except her.


Elgin and Area Heritage Society

The young milliner had long been treated for a mercury compound for syphilis, and an association had been made between mercury treatment of the fibers and an improved felt. However the use of solutions of mercuric nitrate became widespread in the felt industry, and mercury poisoning became endemic. Fellow hatmakers also had dementia and  erethism and the records showed it became common ailment among 19th Century hatmakers.



The life of someone who made felt hats would include drooling, trembles, and bouts of severe paranoia, for reasons that only became clear later. Alice herself developed severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs, called ‘hatter’s shakes’. Distorted vision, confused speech, and advanced cases hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms took the lives of her father and later her aunt. there were no ‘hatty returns” in making a hat it seems in those days.


Arsenic was used in creating the lovely birds that adorned the wide-brimmed hats and some hat makers died young as did some taxidermists. The effects of arsenic poisoning were cumulative and did not kill overnight. In fact, it severely affected motor nerves, vision and even speech, giving the unknowing onlookers the impression the victims were insane. Hence, began the expression, mad hatters. The familiarity of chemical substances having archaic names and terrible toxic powers (such as vitriol and arsenic) made them like Alice–quite mysterious people.



Both in Europe and North America the milliners were the eccentrics and madmen of the clothing trades. On December 1, 1941 the United States Public Health Service banned the use of mercury in the felt industry. Although it has been suggested that the expression ‘mad as a hatter’ and although the character portrayed in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland may have other origins, it seems to have began with mercurialism among hatters similar to the life of Alice.





Thanks to Khatrina Baxter for her information on what was happening to our fair milliners and to her Mum Iris for sharing it. We will be making note of it in the Museum!

RELATED READING– Blowing the Lid of Vintage Hats series


Wearing Vintage Hats– Vintage Hats and Bertha Schwerdtfeger’s Brim…


Wearing Vintage Hats–Blowing the Lid off Katherine Newton


Pour some Feathers on Me


Weird Wendell’s Paperback Writers


Gypsies Tramps and Thieves


What Would You do for a Hat Trick?




About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

4 responses »

  1. Are you watching Outlander? Scottish women peed on wool to keep the color from fading. Ha! I just learned that yesterday. And I thought vinegar did the trick…
    I can relate to anyone who is into hats. I rarely go anywhere without one!


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