A discussion last night on hatmakers and insanity brought up something I’d never heard of — the connection between hatmaking and mercury poisoning. This came up because I was talking about my great-aunt who was a milliner who designed custom-made hats for a lot of the Dallas social set in the ’30s through the ’70s (I might be off by a decade). When asked if she was crazy (… she was certainly “eccentric”), I learned about “Mad Hatter Syndrome” (which is explained here).
I wonder who first thought “Hey! What would happen if I douse these hides in camel urine?” Camel hair + camel urine = felt! Now that was an enterprising individual! An idea man, par excellence.
To further condense the linked article (and this makes no sense unless you’ve read it), camel urine was eventually replaced with human urine. It was discovered at some point that the urine from a syphilitic felt-maker being treated with mercury produced the BEST urine for the job … and, at some point, it seems urine exited the picture altogether and the industry was left with urine-free mercury. …And then bad, bad things started happening.
So, anyway, hatmaking — especially in the 19th century — sounds like an incredibly high-risk trade to have practiced.
This sort of thing is really fascinating — how something so seemingly innocuous could make you insane and kill you. This is ALMOST as interesting as the ergot poisoning of a French village in the ’50s caused by loaves of bread. (Well, shoot — I just read this Wikipedia entry and it seems that mercury and not ergot was the source of the madness — had they treated their grain with urine instead of mercury … well, things would have been a lot different….)
I would recommend the book The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire: The Suspenseful, True Account of a Medieval Plague in Modern Times, and of the Scientific Detective Work that Traced it to a Suprising Cause by John G. Fuller — I loved this book when I read it years ago, and I still think it would make a great movie. Sleepy little French village seized suddenly by madness, hallucinations and major psychedelic freak-outs … what more could you ask for?
So, anyway. Mercury. Bad stuff, man. Try to avoid it if you can.
By the way, if you live anywhere near Danbury, Connecticut (ground-zero for 19th century hatmaking in America) … you might want to think of moving to a more healthful locale. Like Love Canal.