10/6 Mad Hatter Day!

 

The Mad Hatter has always been a beloved character, and a bit of a cultural icon. He occupies just a small amount of the Alice stories, but he is one of Lewis Carroll’s most popular inventions. In fact, he is so popular, we even have a day to celebrate him! Today,  October 6, is National Mad Hatter Day.

Why October 6th? Well, if you remember the original Alice illustrations by Sir John Tennial, you might know that there is a slip of paper on the Hatter’s hat that reads: “In this style, 10/6.”

This means the Hatter has an order to make a hat in exactly that style, and it will cost ten shillings and sixpence. (It has nothing to do with October. But then again, Pi has nothing to do with March 14th, and we celebrate Pi Day on 3/14 anyway.)  In U.S. date representation, the month comes first and then the day, so 10/6 means October 6th.

Mad Hatter Day was founded in 1986 by a group of computer programmers in Boulder, Colorado who noticed the “date” on the Hatter’s hat. They thought it would be a good idea to make this a national holiday, and petitioned for it. Although it is not official, Mad Hatter Day is recognized by hat enthusiasts, time travelers, March Hares, and Alice fans worldwide.

But where did the Hatter come from? Was he really mad? And what exactly was his big gripe with Time?

Madness and Mercury

Lewis Carroll did not invent the idea of an insane hat maker solely on his own. The phrase “mad as a hatter” was part of popular jargon as early as 1837, some thirty years before the Alice stories were published. Many real life hatters were known to exhibit erratic, flamboyant behavior, talk to themselves and have mood swings.

What made the Mad Hatters mad?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, hat makers typically used mercury nitrate as part of the process for curing felt.  Exposure to mercury resulted in some weird behavior. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include anxiety, muscle weakness, memory loss, hearing and vision problems, slurred speech, drooling, and diarrhea. Top hats, so popular during the Victorian era, used a great deal of cured felt, so maybe there was a “rise” in madness during the time Carroll wrote Alice. Hence “mad as a hatter” became a popular phrase.

Luckily, use of mercury was eventually banned from the hatting industry. In 1898, laws were passed in Europe that protected hat makers from the risk of exposure. By the 20th century, mercury poisoning among British hat makers had become a rarity. The United States, however, did not ban mercury until 1941, when the Public Health Service deemed it hazardous and finally prohibited its use.

Insane Inventions

Ironically, Carroll is said to have based his Hatter not on a real hat maker, but on a furniture dealer named Theophilus Carter, who was known locally as the Mad Hatter. Carter always wore a top hat. (But apparently not in this picture.)

Carter was an eccentric with some far out ideas, and he produced some wacky inventions. One such invention was  the “Alarm Clock Bed”. This contraption contained a mattress that would tip the sleeper out of bed and into a tub of cold water to wake them up. According to the Virtual Victorian website: “At the appointed hour of alarm, after the sound of ringing bells to wake the ‘modern’ sleeper, an automated mattress tipped and flung the poor wretch from his bed to a bath of cold water  – supposedly refreshed and restored for the brand new day ahead.”

I am not making this up! The bed was actually featured as an attraction in Prince Albert’s Crystal Palace Exhibition, which took place in Hyde Park in 1851. We don’t have a real picture of this notorious thing, but it was thought to look something like this:

The ladder on the bottom would slide the victim into the refreshing tub of “seaside” cold water below.  Yeah, I can see why this invention didn’t take off…

Time Waits For No One

Or does it?

Perhaps it is significant that Carter’s invention involved a clock. Both Lewis Carroll and his Hatter were obsessed with time. As you may recall, at the Mad Tea Party, it was always six o’clock, tea time.

The time never changed, and this was because the Hatter was being punished. It all started at a concert where the Hatter was appointed to sing for the Queen. Halfway through the song, the Queen yelled that the Hatter was “murdering the time!”

As a result, Time would not cooperate with the Hatter.  “And ever after that,” says the Hatter, “he won’t do a thing I ask. It’s always six o’clock now.” (Time, according to the Hatter, is actually a “he” not an “it”.)

At the Tea Party, time stands still. They must keep full table settings all around, as they move from place to place to get clean cups  — because time never changes.

Interestingly, Albert Einstein himself held a point of view similar to the Mad Hatter’s!

Einstein was obsessed with, and distressed by, the conundrum of the present moment, or the “Now”.  According to Einstein, “the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but this difference does not, and cannot occur within physics.”

Think about it. It is always Now.  You are reading these words Now, but I am also writing these words Now.  It is always Now. You can’t do anything tomorrow, or yesterday. You can plan or recall, but you cannot act. And what you actually do, you DO RIGHT NOW.  But Einstein tells us the experience of the Now cannot be grasped by science nor explained mathematically! Perhaps the Hatter was right. It was always six o’clock. Because it is always now. 🙂

In his sequel Through the Looking Glass, Carroll puts the Hatter in another unique time experience. Hatta (aka Hatter, in the version also the King’s messenger) is in jail for a crime he has not yet committed. The Queen explains to Alice: “He’s in prison now, being punished, and the trial does not even begin until Wednesday, and of course, the crime comes last of all.”

Alice wonders what will happen if he never commits the crime.

Similarly, the Queen justifies not serving jam. “The rule is jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow, but never jam today.” So they just never have jam. Which is a shame. They should have it NOW.

Crazy, right? But in his book Relativity (1952) Einstein wrote: “Since there exists in this four dimensional structure [space-time] no longer any sections which represent “now” objectively, the concepts of happening and becoming are indeed not completely suspended, but yet complicated. It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

Einstein believed in an undivided solid reality, with no true division between past, present and future. When Einstein’s dearest friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote a letter of consolation to Besso’s family, summing up his thoughts:

“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future only has the meaning of an illusion.”

Lewis Carroll was an Oxford mathematician. I have argued before that he was ahead of his time. Perhaps Carroll was toying with the concept of non-linear time years before Einstein was even born! But then again, it is all in the NOW, so, from that perspective, one CANNOT BE “ahead of one’s time.” 

This is clearly a holiday worth celebrating! To make the most of Mad Hatter Day, you might want to:

Drink tea!

Wear hats!

Re-read the Alice stories.

Watch some Alice movies.

Ponder Einstein and time. Do it NOW 🙂 No time like the present. Or wait a minute… (CAN  we wait a minute??) See what I did there?

Have a great Mad Hatter’s Day!

 

 

 

 

 

A Mad Tea Party

 

Today, April 21 is “National Tea Day” in the UK.  It also happens to be the 92nd birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. It seems a day could not be more authentically British. In honor of this I am wishing all my friends in the UK (and tea drinkers everywhere) a Happy National Tea Day!

No tea celebration would be complete without stopping by what is perhaps the most famous tea drinking occasion in history – Alice’s Mad Tea Party.

After chasing the White Rabbit down his hole, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat,  who tells her she will definitely be meeting up with mad people. It’s unavoidable.  ( “We’re all mad here,” the Cat assures Alice. “I’m mad, you’re mad.”) Alice  asks the Cat how he knows she is mad. “You must be,” he replies, “Or you would not have come here.”

Alice then wanders upon a tea table in the middle of the forest.

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’

*** We know right away there is going to be trouble. The March Hare is a wild animal, known for his crazy antics during mating season. The sleeping Dormouse seems pretty benign, but watch out for the Hatter, as they were known at the time to have some mental deficiencies due to mercury exposure involved in the process of making hats.

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

***  Alice is only seven years old. Good thing the Hare did not actually have any wine to offer her. Today he might be arrested for child endangerment.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

*** Again, the mercury exposed Hatter is known to be wacky.

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

*** The study of “meaning what you say” and “saying what you mean” is an interesting one. Carroll shows us how just a few words of juxtaposition can give a completely different meaning. Try it yourself, just for fun! “I know who I am — I am who I know? I believe what I see — I see what I believe? We are what we eat — we eat what we are?” Yes, it should drive you a bit mad 🙂

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

*** The riddle is never actually solved, but I heard a possible answer: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because Poe wrote on both.

What follows is a discussion of time in which the Alice states she must beat time in order to learn music. The Hatter insists that time is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’. Furthermore: ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Finally Alice can take it no longer. She gets up and leaves.

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

Contrary to Alice’s belief (and providing we don’t dine with Hatters) more tea drinking would probably be good for us. Tea is full of anti-oxidants and is known to boost our immune systems. According to sage wisdom, tea with honey is great for soothing sore throats. Besides that, many cultures celebrate tea drinking with particular rituals and ceremonies.

A tea ceremony is like a meditation — time set aside for rest and contemplation. In fact, tea drinking could probably bring about more civility, peace and sanity for us all.

Whatever you do today, take some time out to enjoy a nice cup of tea 🙂

a mad tea