Carroll may have taken his inspiration for the Mad Hatter from a man named Theophilus Carter.
An Oxford cabinet maker and furniture dealer, he was known for standing outside his shop in full top hat.
No matter what else he was wearing.
Lewis Carroll would have been familiar with the sight of Carter.
“All Oxford called him The Mad Hatter”, wrote the Reverend W. Gordon Baillie in a letter to The Times of March 19, 1931. “He would stand at the door of his furniture shop . . . always with a top-hat at the back of his head, which, with a well-developed nose and a somewhat receding chin, made him an easy target for the caricaturist.”
Some sources claim that Carter invented The Alarm Clock Bed, shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
At waking-up time, this invention tipped out the busy, modern worker into a tub of cold water.
It’s true that an alarm clock bed was displayed at the Exhibition.
(In fact, two were two!)
But Carter’s name is nowhere in the Exhibition’s catalog or in any other known documentation.
The Alarm Clock Bed demonstrations were very popular, resulting in much laughter.
And one very wet, cold and miserable man employed to show ‘the works’.
The Mad Hatter psychoanalyzed
The notorious “hatters’ shakes” was a result of poisoning from mercury used in the early days of hat manufacturing.
Mercury poisoning is still known today as ‘Mad Hatter’s disease’.
At a news conference, Johnny Depp suggested that that was where “mad as a Hatter” came from.
The Hatter is “this guy who literally is damaged goods,” he said.
Not so, says the British Medical Journal.
The principal psychotic features of mercury poisoning are “excessive timidity, diffidence, increasing shyness, loss of self-confidence, anxiety and a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.”
The Hatter, according to the British Medical Journal in 1983, was “an eccentric extrovert.”
H.A. Waldron concluded that the Hatter did not have mercury poisoning.
As for the phrase “mad as a hatter”?
It was very rarely connected with the hazards of hat making itself.
The Mad Adder
Lewis Carroll loved linguistic games.
Phrases such as mad as a March hare, mad as a buck, mad as Maybutter, and mad as a wet hen are older than mad as a hatter,
Carroll’s mad as a hatter could have been a twist on the pre-existing saying, mad as a March hare.
Another theory is that the French compare an incapable or weak-minded person to an oyster (huitre).
“He reasons like an oyster” (Il raisonne comme une huitre) may have come out ‘as mad as a hatter.’”
The 1889 edition of Beckwith’s Almanac traces the phrase back to the Anglo-Saxon word “atter” – meaning an adder or a viper.
Lewis Carroll probably knew perfectly well that his “Mad Hatter’ meant ‘a venomous adder’.
Perhaps he was wearing his mathematician’s cap – or in this case top hat- and making a play on Mad Adder?
Have a happy Mad Hatter Day (10 October), whether you are as mad as a Hatter, an Adder or an Oyster!
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.