The Danbury Hatters Face the Sherman Act (1902-1913)
To a man in the hat trade, the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland did not appear comic, but was a grim and tragic reminder of the fate that might be his. Hatmaking at the end of the nineteenth century could well be considered a "hazardous" occupation. It involved dyeing, steaming, shaping, and finishing hat bodies in an atmosphere filled with steam and dust injurious to the lungs. The dyeing process then used, especially with the introduction of the early coal-tar dyes, ulcerated the hands and arms of the workers, and a great deal of the work was performed by hand. The prime hazard came from the acid, nitrate of mercury, in the "carroting" solution that was used to make the pelt-hair shavings sufficiently limp and rough for matting into felt. The finishing and pressing of the hat at high heat released mercury fumes, causing mercury poisoning. The early symptoms of the disease were swelling gums, loosening teeth, and an unpleasant dribbling of saliva. This was followed by palsy of hands and arms and acute irritability, often leading to insanity.
These trade hazards were an influential contributing factor which prompted the workers in the trade to seek protection through unions. As far back as 1830 union organization among hat workers started. At first it was only on a local level but subsequently the hat workers were among the first trades to organize on a national scale. In 1896, under the name of United Hatters of North America, they affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.