October 6 is Mad Hatter’s Day, which is a day set aside to celebrate silliness, as well as a good excuse to act silly (as if we needed an excuse!). So, I thought it would be fun to look into some of the silliness related to the Mad Hatter. Everyone knows the Hatter is one of the beloved but silly characters from Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book Alice in Wonderland. However, in the book, the word “mad” is never used as part of the the Hatter’s name. So, why do we all know the Hatter as the Mad Hatter? Is it simply because the Cheshire Cat calls both the Hatter and the March Hare mad? Is it because the title of the chapter he appears in is “The Mad Tea Party?” Or is there a deeper meaning?
Etymology of the Phrase “Mad as a Hatter”
In the 19th century, mercury was used in manufacturing hats. Mercury poisoning is known to affect the nervous system, causing people to tremble in a way that is similar to Parkinson’s disease. Mercury exposure can also cause aggressiveness, mood swings and anti-social behavior. So when people say “mad as a hatter,” they might have originally meant simply mad or angry. However, the earliest printed citation of the phrase “mad as a hatter” is from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine January-June 1829, which defined the phrase as being raving mad or insane. This definition could have been due to the trembling fits the mercury poisoning caused, making people think that the afflicted was actually insane, especially if you pair that with strange mood swings, withdrawal from society.
Inspiration for the Hatter
Along with the story from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, featuring conversations between characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in Carroll’s Wonderland, as well as the the unusual behavior of hatters, the inspiration of Carroll’s Hatter may have come from Oxford cabinet maker and furniture dealer Theophilus Carter, who had a reputation for eccentric behavior. Carter was a bit of an inventor (kind of like the White Knight in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass) who created the alarm-clock bed, which woke up its inhabitant by tipping the bed over. Carter also wore a top hat every day, standing outside his shop, where Carroll would have seen him while he was at Oxford.
The Never Ending Tea Party
When Alice meets the Hatter the March Hare and the Dormouse, they are crowded around the corner of a large table set for tea. When Alice sits down, they all cry “No room!” Later, you find out the reason there is no room is that Time is “mad” at the Hatter. After the Queen of Hearts accused the Hatter of “murdering time” during a concert she was giving, Time became offended and ever since then “it’s always six o’clock.” So, since they have no time to wash things between teas, they merely move to the next spot. If you are looking for some recipes for your own Mad Hatter Tea Party, check out our Clearwater HPB in Indianapolis (link to store page) that has a copy of The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook: A Culinary Diversion, by John Fisher, published in 1976.
The Hatter’s Hat
Whenever you see a portrayal of the Hatter in Carroll’s book, he always has a “10/6” label on his hat. The label advertises the price of the hat as being 10 shillings and a sixpence. As Hatter explains to the King of Hearts, the hat isn’t his. He keeps them to sell and has no hats of his own.
The famous riddle that the Hatter asks at his infamous tea party is “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” This riddle is never answered in the book, and some have said there is no answer to the riddle. However, Carroll did write an answer, it’s just not in the book. The answer is “Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat, and it is never put with the wrong end in front.”
So this Mad Hatter’s Day, celebrate silliness. Take up the biggest table in the restaurant and cry “No room!” whenever someone tries to sit down, or better yet, periodically stand up and move to the next spot while you are having your meal. Wear a hat with a price tag on it and see how many offers for purchase you can get. Tip people out of bed. Have a crazy tea party. Tell riddles. Have fun. And remember to drink lots of tea.
November 26 marks the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland’s publication. To celebrate, we have made Carroll’s classic children’s tale our current HPB Book Club book. If you would like to chat with fellow HPB Book Clubbers, visit hpb.com/bookclub/fb and join the conversation about Alice in Wonderland between now and the end of November.