Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Mad Hatter and Camel Urine

Did you know the crazy Mad Hatter in Alice and Wonderland is based on a historic fact?

When tall, black beaver-felt hats were the raving fashion, the hatters would bring in beaver pelts from all over, including multiple thousands from across the ocean in what would become The United States.

Once they received the furs from near and far, they had to find a way to treat the pelts to release the top layer of hair that was coarse and ugly (not good for the hats) and gathered the shorter, softer, under fur. The fine layer was then mixed with glue, shaped, and molded to fit a hat form. And like the 80s hair band—the taller, the bigger, the better.

But here’s the kicker, to release that long hair and access the fine fur the beaver skin had to be coated with mercury.

Yup mercury.

You know where I’m heading don’t you.

The hatmaker would heat the glue-fur combo over a lantern or candle to get a better shape out of the material. Unwittingly, they would breathe in mercury fumes which are a neurotoxin which led to several crazy hatmakers suffering from Mad Hatter Syndrome.

I was so intrigued when I learned this random little fact. Even more so, when I found that the Mad Hatter in the original Alice in Wonderland was supposedly based on the author's crazy-hatter friend.

But as I shared my tidbit with my friends, I found that many knew this crazy fact already.


They didn’t know this extra special detail.

I laugh.

How on earth did the hatmaker’s figure out that mercury released the fur?

And here it is.

Some entrepreneuring individual figured out that camel fur, plus, camel urine equals released fur that could be used as felt. And the craft of felting was born.

As the demand for hats grew, so did the demand for camel urine. Eventually there wasn’t enough camel urine to go around. So, some other get-it-done fellow figured he would try human urine and see if it worked too. 

It did.

I know. Ugh.

As the easier to obtain and cheaper resource of human urine became the norm, they noticed the poor hatmaker with syphilis being treated with mercury produced a finer end product than their healthy counterpart. Eventually they got around to selling hats with urine-free mercury treatments. Improving sales and making hatmakers sick with the mercury exposure.

I think I’m just fine with seeing the elegant top hats behind museum glass or staged on vintage mannequin.

Camel pee… yuck.

I found a new respect for the crazy, mad hatters. Dealing with furs, camel urine, mercury poison, and fancy lords of the highest rank, on top of learning how to felt to perfection was no small task. They had to have some tenacity to be good at their jobs.

My hats off to you, hatters.

Do you know of any interesting facts behind the trades? How or why certain tricks-of-the-trade came about or trades that have become obsolete? I’d love to hear them.

CaraGrandle is a Historical Romance Novelist who prefers to write about the early settlers of the Pacific Northwest. She is represented by the Steve Laube Agency. Cara leads the author4TheAuthor writers group on Facebook, home to 185 writers. Together they're pressing back on busy and making a space for their dreams. Cara hosts a Writers Encouragement show weekly on Periscope. The show is on Tuesday mornings at 9:00am PST. Cara's Periscope show includes live, interactive author-interviews with leading Christian fiction novelists, editors, publicist and agents under the handle @CaraGrandle. 

Cara is currently out on submission. Follower her journey on her Facebook author page. 


  1. Who knew! I'm so glad they don't use that technique now. That's for an interesting post.

    1. Who knew is right. Some things should not make it into our stories. Lol

  2. Thanks for sharing Cara! I knew about the mercury and mad hatter. I did not know about the urine. Ick!

    1. I kept thinking of all those tophats on gorgeous Austen worthy characters soaked in camel urine. Ick ick ick

  3. The Mad Hatter ride at Disney takes on a whole new meaning for me now. :)

  4. Thanks for the information, Cara. I didn't know about the mercury or urine.

    1. Oh good. The blog is more fun if you didn't know either.

  5. Fascinating, and I guess it's a good thing some things we don't know. :)

    1. I wonder how many other things we are ignorant of.

  6. Cara, I can't think of any trade secrets off-hand, though I did know
    about the mercury being the cause for hatters going "mad" but
    not about the camel urine. I'm thinking the money or the prestige
    of the business had to be awfully good to risk their brains that
    way! Interesting stuff!

  7. I did know about Mad Hatter's Syndrome, but did NOT know the part about how using mercury to begin with started. Very interesting!