The Misadventures of a Mad Hatter

Local legend says that in the late 18th century in Danbury, Connecticut, a man by the name of Zadoc Benedict discovered a hole in his shoe. There might not have been anything remarkable about that except that, in addition to having an excellent name, Benedict turned out to be a clever problem-solver. He plugged the hole with a bit of fur and found that after a while, sweat and friction had formed the patch into a nice felt.

Benedict figured he could use a similar technique to make a stylish felt hat and soon found a way to do just that, creating hats first in his home and eventually in a small hat shop on Danbury’s Main Street.

A pretty picture of a building filled with toxic steam and mad hatters. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And apparently, he made some really nice hats because others in Danbury also decided to go into the hat-making business, which toward the end of the century had become Danbury’s leading industry, producing five million hats per year and earning it the clever nickname “Hat City.”

By then, the hat manufacturing process had taken a turn toward simpler, large-scale techniques involving the use of mercury nitrate, an incredibly toxic substance that turns the furry skin of a small animal into hat felt and a grown man into a trembling, drooling, irritable, mad hatter of the variety that might engage in an endless tea party with his buddy the March Hare.

It’s one of those stories of industrial danger and exploitation that should make your stomach hurt. The earliest clinical description of mercury poisoning was published in 1860. It wasn’t formally studied by the U. S.  Public Health Service until 1937, and that only after many years of pressure from the Hatter’s Union.

John Tenniel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The symptoms mimicked drunkenness, which made it easy for employers to shovel the blame for illness onto the employees rather than the industrial chemicals. And then there’s the reality that the process itself of making a hat can, in fact, drive one mad.

At least this has been my recent experience. This year for the first time, both of my sons are in high school. Both are soon headed to their schools’ homecoming dances, my freshman son perhaps with a bit of trepidation. He’s going with a friend who is a girl who will be wearing a purple dress.

With a little bit of prodding from people who are way too invested in getting nice pictures (like me), my son will match her pretty well. He’s chosen a lavender dress shirt, dark gray slacks, vest, and tie. In addition to this, he wants to wear a flat cap. But it’s got to be purple. Or at least have a significant amount of purple in it.

My only previous hat making experience.

Let me tell you, I have scoured the internet and shown him lots of pictures. What I have discovered is that outside of ordering a custom-made cap rush delivered to Missouri from Scotland, for which I am unwilling to pay, there are no suitable options. Not one. There are, however, some simple patterns available.

I pride myself on being a relatively creative and crafty mom, but sewing has never really been my best medium. I do own a sewing machine and I can whip up a cloth facemask with the best of them. Over the years I have made a few Halloween costumes, hemmed some skirts, and even made one or two outfits for our travel mascot, Sock Monkey Steve. But give me a simple pattern for a flat cap and I will quickly become a trembling, irritable, mad hatter who is ready to start drinking with the March Hare. I doubt it will be tea in my cup.

It’s not quite what I had in mind, but my son says it will do, mostly because he doesn’t want his mother to go mad.

I tried. I really tried. Several times. It did not go well. Fortunately, like Zadoc Benedict, I am clever enough to find a way to make it work. I ended up dyeing a plaid flat cap with an off-white background. So now my son has a purple flat cap to wear to homecoming. I didn’t have to use any mercury nitrate and I have recovered from my temporary madness. 

Eventually Danbury did, too, though not until after an awful lot of hatters had gone mad. The use of mercury nitrate in the hat industry was banned in the U. S. at the end of 1941. We as a nation, much to the chagrin of my son, don’t wear as many hats as we once did, though I suspect those who make the ones we do wear, are still a little mad.