Apparently, making hats could be a lucrative business in the 19th century. Several of the brothers of Aaron Day, my fourth great grandfather, had taken up the trade, which they likely learned from their uncle, Daniel Day. Aaron’s oldest brother, John, resided in Starks, Maine, and his great granddaughter, Lucy Hutchkins, wrote the following:
John Day “The Hatter” was Grandpa Day’s father. Born in Mass. (Ipswich, I think)…Perhaps it was in Hallowell that he learned the hatter’s trade. He had a brother Aaron living in Starks at that time, he went there and met and married Elizabeth (Betsy) Skillings the oldest child of Lewis Skillings- May 1809. They lived for a time on “Mount Hunger” in Starks. Perhaps he gave it the name…
Grandpa told me once how his father made the felt hats. Wish I could remember it better. The washed wool was pulled apart very fine and the strands pressed down evenly into a large circular form, it was wet, under pressure (perhaps steamed) I think and shrunk until it became firm. Then it had to be blocked by shaping it over a “block” of wood. I suppose it was dyed, don’t remember just when but before it was blocked I guess. Grandfather, the hatter, was only 56 when he died.
Before his death, John had much difficulty feeding his family; at least one of his children (Jonathan, the grandfather of Lucy who wrote the history above) was sent to be raised by relatives when he couldn’t manage to support all nine of them.
While the trade of a hatter was not so promising in the tiny town of Starks, John’s brothers Francis and Moses had much better success. From the book, Manchester Maine 1775-1975, we learn the following:
In the early 1800’s the Crossroads [in Manchester, Maine] had its own hat shop, owned by Francis and Moses Day. An old “hatter’s iron” from there was in Mrs. Henrietta Sampson’s possession in 1902, and deeds for Day land definitely say where the hat shop was. We have no records of what kinds of hats they made, but in Winthrop “the making of fur and wool hats was begun in 1809” – “the manufacturing the various kinds of hats then in demand and dealing in furs.”
Early land transactions provide Francis’ occupation as hatter, while in later Kennebec county deeds his title is “gentleman,” a term usually reserved for those few individuals who were quite financially well off and did not have to work for a living. Moses, on the other hand, did not fare so well. Lucy Hutchins wrote that Moses had a head injury as a child. It may have been this, or it could have been the trade of hatter that resulted in his institution in the Augusta “insane asylum” by the time he was enumerated on the 1850 census.
Mad hatter disease, or mad hatter syndrome, is a commonly used name for occupational chronic mercury poisoning among hatmakers whose felting work involved prolonged exposure to mercury vapours. The neurotoxic effects included tremor and the pathological shyness and irritability characteristic of erethism…By the Victorian era the hatters’ condition had become proverbial, as reflected in popular expressions like “mad as a hatter” and “the hatters’ shakes”.
Perhaps this contributed to John’s relatively early death as well, and his inability to care for his family financially. Now, someday, maybe I will learn if Aaron also followed this family trade!