April 23, 2014

Mad as a hatter

The term mad as a hatter, or variations of this phrase, is generally used to refer to a crazy person. The term is believed to have originated during the 18th century when the production of felt for hats used mercury.

Unfortunately for the workers in these factories, the exposure to mercury over time caused mental illnesses and tremors, among other ailments. It was not until the Victorian Era that the effects of working with mercury became well known in society, leading to the popular saying ‘mad as a hatter’ or ‘the hatters’ shakes.’

British Belgic shako
Before the War of 1812, beaver pelts were popular in Europe for hats. One of the most common hats before and during the War of 1812 was the top hat. As the top hat’s popularity grew, the militaries of Europe began to redesign the headgear worn by soldiers. The British Army had two prominent designs during the war for their shakoes, the stovepipe and the Belgic. Both designs were modeled on the top hat and made of black felt with a brass plate attached to the front, varying based on regiment.

American tombstone shako
The American shako was similar to the British design but leather was used instead of felt and a tin plate was used instead of brass. Both the British and American shakos used hackles, the plume extending from the top or the side of the shako, and varied in colour depending on the type of soldier wearing it. For examples, the British used white hackles to represent the grenadiers, green was used for light troops, and white with red represented line infantry or battalion troops. 

Both the British and American shakos were designed to be tall so that soldiers would look more intimidating from a distance and to make it easier to identify troops. The design of the shakos had a purpose and the armies that issued them were not necessarily mad as a hatter.

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