Danbury, Connecticut, calls itself Hat City, USA. It was the biggest hat manufacturer in America for more than a hundred years. The industry eventually left Danbury, but you can still see bowlers and fedoras on signs and billboards all over its streets. Those hats also left behind another – more complicated – legacy.
One of the best places to learn about the country’s early hatting industry is the Danbury Museum. On its grounds is a replica of a hat shop from the 1790s.
“There would have been many tools on the floor on the walls,” says Museum Director Brigid Guertin. “There would have been large vats of water, there would have been a fire roaring in the fireplace.”
One of the earliest hatters in Danbury was Zadoc Benedict, who opened his hat shop just after the Revolutionary War.
“One morning Zadoc Benedict got out of bed, stretched, put his feet into his shoes and discovered a hole,” Guertin says. Luckily, there was a pile of fur in his room.
“He put it in his shoe, he slipped his foot back into his shoe and he walked on the fur all day long. At the end of the day, Zadoc returned home only to discover the fur that he had put into his shoe had turned into felt. And thus felting was born in Danbury, Connecticut.”
That story’s not true – felt has been around for thousands of years. That tale was kind of an urban legend Danbury hatmakers used to tell amongst themselves. But Guertin says it’s a fun yarn and a good way to teach kids.
“This is a good description of how you can take raw fur and with the application of heat, pressure and water, and possibly Zadoc Benedict’s sweat, you can turn that raw fur into felt,” she says. Of course, the actual process is a little more complicated.
“Adding hot water, adding cold water, adding pressure, and then forming all of that large fur pile into basic felt and then shrinking the felt down so it can be maneuvered in a manner that creates some sort of style, so it can become a hat that fits proudly on a head.”
Felted hats made from fur were typical of the day. And hatters made maybe two or three hats a week. Then the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear in the 19th century. And Danbury was a great place to be a hatmaker.
“We had – and we still have – a ton of water,” Guertin says. “So if you’re making a fur felt hat you need a tremendous amount of water.”
Hat factories sprung up along the city’s river – called the Still River – in the 1820s. Each factory had hundreds of workers cranking out hats by the thousands on sprawling floors. When they were done, they dumped the dirty water into the river.
“If you talk to some of the older Danburians who will remember this well, our Still River was notorious for running whatever color the hat factories were dyeing the hats that day,” Guertin says.
The hat trade drew immigrants from around the world. The city’s population exploded. Broadsheets advertised jobs at hat factories. Guertin says the conditions at those jobs weren’t always great – the factory floors were hot and steamy and smelled like a wet dog, and it was too loud to hear yourself think.
“You have steam, hot water, cold water, you are dripping, putting your hands right into a chemical bath,” she says. “Your hands might be swollen and discolored by the end of the day. You’re doing very repetitive labor over and over again.”
One ingredient in those chemical baths was mercury. Guertin says mercury makes a nice smooth felt and it speeds up the hatting process. But it’s also dangerous.
“Unfortunately when the mercury was exposed to that hot water, cold water, pressure, you end up with workers who are inhaling that mercury, who have cuts on their hands and are dipping their hands in and out of mercury baths,” she says.
Steam from the baths filled the rooms, condensed on the ceilings and dripped back down on the workers. One report called it a rain of death.
Johan Varekamp is a scientist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He studies mercury poisoning and its effects. They include nervous disorders, shakes and tremors, and walking with a gait. Workers got irritable and forgetful. They were always drowsy and they couldn’t sleep. Their teeth fell out.
“There are a whole range of medical observations that are typical for mercury exposure. And the hatmakers in Danbury had ’em all, and so it was known as the Danbury shakes,” Varekamp says.
Some employers blamed the Danbury Shakes on alcoholism. They wrote their employees off as shiftless drunks and denied them workers’ comp. Varekamp says there are outward similarities between alcoholism and mercury poisoning – as long as you don’t look too close.
“Severe alcoholism can lead to tremors,” he says, “and also walking in a funny way with kind of a twisted upper torso. You could think of somebody who’s drunk and kind of waddles over the streets. But one could also say that the factory owners were somewhat in denial, knowing possibly in the back of their head this exposure to mercury was not the best thing in the world.”
Scientists have known about the ill effects of mercury since at least the Civil War. The Connecticut Board of Health started to monitor the use of mercury in hatting factories in the 1880s. But they didn’t do anything about it because it didn’t seem to affect the people who wore the hats.
Varekamp says eventually the workers realized they were being poisoned. Unions started to put pressure on the management of the factories. Hat factories in Danbury finally stopped using mercury in 1941. It was replaced with a chemical that wasn’t poisonous. Hats went out of style a few decades later, and Danbury suffered the same ravages as many other industrial towns. The last hat factory closed in the 1980s.
There’s debate about whether there are harmful levels of mercury in the Still River today. Johan Varekamp studied the river in 2002 – he found levels higher than anywhere in the state.
“Of course, that 150 years of hatmaking have left a legacy of polluted uplands and soils and yards in Danbury that is pretty amazing,” he says.
An op-ed by the city’s environmental coordinator at the time said the kind of mercury found in the Still River’s soil wasn’t the most dangerous variety, and in most places it was within limits set by state guidelines.
The city says it can’t report on its current mercury levels. But one hat factory in Danbury that tested for the highest level of mercury in 2002 underwent a $2 million EPA clean-up. The city just donated that land to a women’s shelter.
Johan Varekamp says whether or not Danbury citizens should worry about mercury, there’s a lesson to be learned.
“[W]e have the luxury of looking back and saying, why didn’t people in the 1800s realize this was bad?” he says. “I always worry that we are now exposing ourselves to other environmental pollutants and that 30 years from now people would say, why didn’t they were more careful, they must have known that it was bad for you?”
Mercury lingers in more ways than one. It’s worked its way into our language. Hatmaking in the U.S. was big. But most of the factories were in England, where mercury was also used. And it’s from England we got that well-known phrase – mad as a hatter.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified the John Dodd Hat Shop as having been a working hat shop. In fact, it was a private house built by Dodd circa 1790, according to the Danbury Museum.