Poisonous hats and exploding sweets - the hazard of 19th Century goods, now on show in Leeds

It may look completely innocuous, but this rather dapper top hat is actually a historic hazard.

Sunday, 27th January 2019, 11:25 am

Manufactured in around the 1840s, the stylish headgear contains mercury, which was commonly used at the time in hat manufacturing all around the world. Mercuric nitrate was used to treat the fur of small animals for the manufacture of felt hats

As a consequence, workers who made hats were often aggressive due to heavy metal poisoning, the origin of the well-known phrase ‘mad as a hatter.’

Derived from mercury poisoning, the condition known as erethism, mad hatter disease, or mad hatter syndrome, is a neurological disorder which affects the whole central nervous system.

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The hat is one of a huge number of everyday threats that were hiding in plain sight in homes and workplaces over the past 150 years and which are on display in a new exhibition at Kirkstall’s Abbey House Museum. Danger Zone looks at the potentially deadly risks people unwittingly took through exposure to seemingly innocuous items like medicines, food and even the clothes they wore. Among the other objects on display are a bottle of potassium chlorate pastilles used to soothe sore throats in the 1880s. Although supposedly beneficial, as the name suggests, the sweets actually contained potassium chlorate which could spontaneously combust in the owner’s pocket.

Also on display is a delicate glass centrepiece containing radioactive uranium, which was added to some glassware in the early 19th century to give it a green tinge and help it stand out in the early evening light of a traditional Victorian home.

Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of social history said: “In the past, materials like asbestos and mercury, which we now know to be hazardous, could be included in the most commonplace items, meaning people in all walks of life could fall victim to any manner of hidden risk.”

Danger Zone runs at Abbey House Museum until December 31. For more details including admission prices, opening hours and the programme of talks, please visit: https://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/abbeyhouse/exhibitions/danger-zone