Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com.
As confessed previously on this site, I collect millinery heads – not the faceless canvas and plastic things you see in department store windows, but the hand-painted papier-mâché and carved wood models used to display fashionable ladies’ hats in Paris and London during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Each face wears a different expression and each seems to invite a particular style. All of my millinery heads have names and – this will not sound loopy to other writers – sometimes I hold imaginary conversations with them. I study the eyes and mouth of a particular head and pretend that she’s a character in one of my books. I provide her with a backstory, present her with a complicated situation, and interview her to find out how she might react. If she really did possess a human consciousness, listening to me natter away about murder would quickly persuade her that I was nuts. But a head old enough to be called an antique has heard way scarier stuff.
For more than three hundred years, making hats was a deadly business, and not just for the millions of rabbits and beavers slaughtered for their skins and birds slaughtered for their feathers. It was deadly for the hatters. Before they got around to designing the hat, they first had to produce felt, which they did by treating animal skins with a solution of mercury nitrate. The skins were then dried in an oven until they turned orange, a process called “carroting.” The hatter stretched and cut the dried pelts, sliced the fur into shreds, and after it was soaked in hot water and pressed, the resulting felt could be dyed and blocked into the shape of a hat. During the course of this work, they breathed toxic vapors into their lungs and absorbed mercury through their fingers. Artisans who were especially dedicated to their craft would put the mercury infused felt into their mouths and chew it to make it softer and more pliable.
People couldn’t help but notice that hatters who’d been on the job for a while exhibited bizarre behaviors. Some became excessively shy, some irritable and aggressive, many wept and trembled. They bled from the ears and mouth. Their fingers and toes turned a bright crimson. Ladies visiting the millinery shops to try on the latest fashion must have been horrified by such doings. Gentlemen would have been no less alarmed at the sight of hatters who staggered about like drunkards and raved incoherently.
By the start of the Victorian era, “mad as a hatter” had become a common idiom. The Mad Hatter in Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was so mad he took a chomp out of a china teacup. People knew that hat making was hazardous. They just didn’t know why. Not until the middle of the 19th Century did the British and French recognize that mercury was the cause.
It’s impossible to know how many hatters have been poisoned over the years. In 1874, a safe alternative to mercury was discovered and shortly thereafter the French passed a law to protect its hat makers. Not the U.S. We didn’t ban the use of mercury until we ran short of heavy metals to manufacture detonators during WWII. Those glamorous hats worn in American movies during the 1930s and early ‘40s were most likely crafted by shy, irritable, shaky hatters with blood dribbling out of their ears.
This country has seen a range of styles come and go – the colonial era tricorne, the “stovepipe” favored by Abe Lincoln, the Charlie Chaplin bowler, the Homburg popularized by Winston Churchill, the dipped Fedora that looked so cool on Bogart. A lot of hats, a lot of mad hatters. I’m not much of a fan of the ubiquitous flat-billed cap so many men wear these days. But at least nobody dies making them.
As for women’s hats, millinery has continued as an art form since the towering edifices created for Marie Antoinette by a mad hairdresser named Leonard-Alexis Autié. His coiffeurs-cum-chapeaux added upwards of four feet to Marie’s height and cost so much that they threatened to bankrupt the ladies who tried to imitate them. The hat as objet d’art has evolved in a variety of forms over the years, but it has surely reached its apotheosis in the amazing headpieces worn by Lady Gaga. Shaped like enormous telephones, gargantuan lobsters, swirling tornadoes, lightning bolts and a replica of the Guggenheim Museum, Gaga’s hats make entering a taxi no minor feat of dexterity. If her hat makers are gaga, it’s a relief to know it’s not because of mercury poisoning. Even so, if their millinery heads could talk, I’d pay serious money to interview them.