Reading Susan Brind Morrow’s unique writing in Wolves & Honey, I came across the strange story of the mad hatters and beaver fur; even after Colombus stumbled across America and eventually worked out that it wasn’t, in fact, India, explorers were still trying to reach Asia by going west and emissaries headed up the rivers and across the lakes of Michigan and Canada bearing gifts of embroidered damask robes for the Chinese emperor.
These voyages were of course all funded by European monarchs whose lust for power might only have been matched by their desire for luxuries – almost everyone in the developed world lives a more luxurious life than the King of Spain 500 years ago, after all – and when they eventually realised they weren’t going to open up a new silk route to the west, they settled for furs instead – the wilds of North America seemed to offer and endless source.
The markets of Europe went wild for beaver pelts which were turned into felt and sold by the pound. Beaver hairs were naturally stiff and somewhat waterproof and they became the primary source for top hats which were a necessary fashion for gentleman all over Europe and America for a couple of hundred years. The beaver population which had numbered in the hundreds of millions almost became extinct. The hatters would brush nitrate of mercury over each hair to bind them together and then played a violin over them to create a steady vibration to shake off the dust. Unfortunately, the exposure to toxic mercury meant that many of the artisans lost muscle control and the capacity to speak.
Hence the expression: mad as a hatter.