Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Mad Hatter and the Wonderland Beanie

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, 'Why is a raven like a writing-desk?' ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I'm mad about hats. I love making them and wearing them.  I’m captivated by a well crafted chapeau and I am not alone. In an instant gratification society, which we are here in America, the hat pattern has it all. This week, as I puzzled through where my own creative fascination for hats originated from, I wondered if someone who is passionate about hats is the same as someone who is a mad hatter. It turns out that the two are remarkably different.

In the past, making hats could be detrimental to one's health. Mad Hatter disease, also known as Mad Hatter syndrome, is the more commonly used term for chronic mercury poisoning. Mercuric nitrate, which is both toxic and colorless, was used regularly in the production of hats in the 17th , 18th and 19th centuries. Hatmaking was an important industry, supplying the demands of society for head coverings. No decent citizen of the times would emerge in public without a hat upon their head. The majority of these hats were created from animal fur that was stripped, boiled, steamed and then rubbed into a workable felt.  Mercurial nitrate made that work more efficient and more economically productive. Working long hours in that particular manufacture process resulted in the laborers suffering from chronic exposure to the poisonous vapors of the mercury. Physical symptoms of the disease include tingling and tremors in the extremeties, excessive drooling, inflammation of the gums and loss of teeth. Psychological indications are paththological shyness, anxiety and significant fear of being scorned or treated with contempt. These irrational fears can result in explosive fits of rage, which may explain the term's eventual link to violence and crime in the 20th century. 

Several Mad Hatters in history have been villains. The American gangster Albert Anastasia, a boss in the Gambino crime family who was violently murdered in a barber shop in 1957, was also nicknamed the Mad Hatter. It is believed he had knowledge of, or was directly involved in committing over 400 murders as a member of Murder, Inc., the enforcement branch of the crime syndicate.  James Madison was a criminal who robbed 17 banks wearing a variety of different hats during his crimes. He too earned the nickname of the Mad Hatter, not for his demeanor, but because he wore a different hat at each of his robberies during 2006 & 2007 in New Jersey. Batman also had to deal with a nefarious foe known as the Mad Hatter in the comics. 

For most however, the phrase “Mad Hatter” is forever linked to the character from Lewis Carroll’s children’s book, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. The character is simply referred to as “Hatter” in the book, not “The Mad Hatter” as a large number of people believe. As eccentric and unconventional as Hatter is in the tale, and despite the fact that at the time it was written Carroll would have been familiar with Mad Hatter’s disease, there is no proof in Carroll’s personal diaries or letters that he was created as a fictional representation of a victim of mercurial poisoning. Populist theory today suggests that Theophilus Carter, a peculiar furniture dealer who would often stand in the threshold of his furniture shop wearing a top hat, was the inspiration for the character. (Carter’s claim to fame was the invention of an alarm clock that would tip the user out of bed when the bell went off.) There is also no evidence to support Carter as the model and may well be nothing more than speculation on the part of scholars. The inspiration for Hatter remains another unanswered literary riddle. 

I think it is hard for human beings to accept, but some things, like the origins of the character of Hatter or the inspiration for a new hat design, may just be born in the imagination, given life by a brilliant spark of ingenuity. There simply may not be an explanation for creativeness that we have yet to define or understand.

'Have you guessed the riddle yet?' the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
'No, I give it up,' Alice replied: 'what's the answer?'
'I haven't the slightest idea,' said the Hatter.
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This week's pattern, the Wonderland Beanie, is a nod to the bizarre and nonsensical world created by Lewis Carroll. Wonderland is also the last stop on the blue line, part of the mass transit subway system in Boston. It was once the home of an amusement park and a race track, and it is still the stop for Revere Beach, the first public beach in the United States. 

Wonderland Beanie is a basic, unisex beanie pattern that can become a charity cap, boyfriend beanie, sports hat in your team's colors, or a quick gift. The color combinations are endless. You can download the free pattern on Ravelry or Craftsy. 

Happy Crocheting!



1 comment:

  1. Fascinating read Kris! I had no idea mercury was used in the production of hats and caused those symptoms....which I swear I have on a daily basis without the mercury exposure.