In the New York Evening Mail of 28 December 1917 appeared an article by H.L. Mencken entitled “A Neglected Anniversary.” The article discussed the very first American bathtub, how the bathtub had faced substantial public, medical and legal opposition, and how one was eventually installed in the White House during the administration of President Millard Fillmore.
Mencken made the whole thing up. “This article,” he wrote, “was a tissue of somewhat heavy absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious.”
“My motive,” he explained later, “was simply to have some harmless fun in war days. It never occurred to me that it would be taken seriously.” However:Soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men…. The chiropractors and other such quacks collared them for use as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They were cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene. They got into learned journals and the transactions of learned societies. They were alluded to on the floor of Congress. The editorial writers of the land, borrowing them in toto and without mentioning my begetting of them, began to labor them in their dull, indignant way. They crossed the dreadful wastes of the North Atlantic, and were discussed horribly by English uplifters and German professors. Finally, they got into the standard works of reference, and began to be taught to the young.
Wendy McElroy, in The Bathtub, Mencken, and War suspects that more than “harmless fun” was behind the hoax: “Through his hoax, Mencken demonstrated to himself and to selected friends that the American public would believe any absurdity, as long as it appealed to their imagination or emotions.”
Curtis D. MacDougall, in his 1958 edition of the book Hoaxes gives a chronology, which he confesses is surely very incomplete, and which I summarize and update somewhat below:
- December 1917 Mencken’s article published in the Evening Mail.
- May 1926 Mencken confesses to the hoax in his column
- June 1926 The Boston Herald, which had printed Mencken’s confession, nonetheless reports as fact the original hoax.
- July 1926 Mencken publishes a second confession.
- October 1926 The article “Bathtubs, Early Americans” in Scribner’s magazine is based on the phony Mencken story.
- December 1926 The Chicago Evening American reports the hoax as fact: “Bathtub Once Forbidden by Law in America.”
- March 1927 Col. W.G. Archer of the National Trade Extension Bureau of the Plumbing and Heating Industry uses the story in his address in Clearfield, Pennsylvania.
- July 1927 John Finley, chief editorial writer for the New York Times tells the story as fact at a meeting of social and health workers in New York City.
- November 1927 The chiropractic profession circulates the story in newsletters and op-ed pieces as a way of pointing out the closed-mindedness of the medical profession.
- February 1929 The American Baptist tells the story in an article called “The Bathtub Innovation.”
- September 1929 The Paris edition of the New York Herald publishes an article based on the hoax story.
- 1929 The Le Roy Carman Printing Company of Los Angeles prints a pamphlet by Walt Dennison called “Saga of the Bathtub” that retells the bogus history.
- May 1930 House Beautiful magazine prints the story as true.
- September 1930 Golden Book is similarly duped.
- October 1930 a press syndicate distributes the details of the story in a curiosities column.
- November 1930 The book Puritan’s Progress, containing interesting ‘facts’ about the history of bathing, is published.
- March 1931 The New York Herald Tribune reports: “Baths in Disfavor for Long Periods, History Recalls.”
- December 1931 The Tucson Daily Star reports on the anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub, using Mencken’s story. The New York Sun reprints a Military Engineer article about “When Bathtubs Were Luxuries.”
- August 1932 Chicago’s Domestic Engineering Company retells the story in a pamphlet called The Story of the Bath, which is exposed by reporters at the Macon, Georgia Telegraph.
- 1933 Joseph Nathan Kanes book Famous First Facts uses Mencken’s story as the authoritative source of bathtub firsts.
- 1935 The book Rats, Lice and History by Dr. Hans Zinsser, a Harvard professor of medicine, includes phacts from Mencken’s history.
- January 1935 The U.S. Federal Housing Administration publishes an article — “Bathtub History in U.S. Traced to Days of Benjamin Franklin” — that includes the Mencken story as fact.
- February 1935 Radio personality Alexander Woollcott says that in 1841 “the first bathtub had not yet been installed in the White House.”
- August 1935 The New York Times reports that “One of the first bathrooms appeared in Cincinnati, Ohio, about 1850, and certain clergymen hearing of it preached that such luxury meant nothing less than degeneracy.”
- September 1936 UPI sends out a story noting that “In the middle of the nineteenth century the bathtub was classed as a ‘curse’ to humanity and measures were taken to discourage its use…”
- October 1935 The Kentucky Department of Health includes the Mencken story in a bulletin.
- November 1935 R.J. Scott’s syndicated column notes that “As late as 1842 some American cities prohibited the use of bathtubs.”
- December 1935 The Digest and Review reviews the phacts.
- January 1936 A speaker addressing the American Institute of Banking in Chicago notes that “when the first bathtubs were introduced in America, intellectual Boston passed an ordinance making it unlawful to bathe in a bathtub except on medical advice.”
- March 1936 Liberty publishes a Q&A section, one pair of which is “In which city of the United States was it against the law to take a bath in 1845?” “In Boston, Mass. It was then deemed unlawful to take a bath except when prescribed by a physician.”
- May 1936 Dr. Shirley Wynne, former New York City commissioner of health, uses the story during a radio address.
- July 1936 The Chicago Daily News repeats the bogus tale in an article entitled “Bathtub Suffered Same Fate in U.S. As Most Pioneers.”
- October 1936 The story is embellished for the article “Some Historic Lore of the White House” in the United States News.
- January 1937 An Associated Press release gives the bogus story of the first American bathtub.
- April 1937 The Detroit News prints a syndicated column, “The Bathtub as a Symbol of Equality,” in which the usual phacts are regurgitated.
- May 1937 Rep. Frank Carlson is quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying that “President Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the White House, while Boston still had a law against taking a bath without medical advice.”
- June 1937 The Akron, Ohio Beacon-Journal tells the story of America’s first bathtub.
- 1937 Lyndon Brown uses “the slow acceptance of the bathtub” as an example in his book Marketing Research and Analysis.
- August 1938 Flora MacFarland spins the familiar yarn in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
- September 1938 The American Weekly tells its readers that “There’s a Lot of History Behind Your Bathtub,” but doesn’t mention that most of it is false.
- 1941 Harry Walker Hepner’s book Effective Advertising uses the story as an illustrative anecdote.
- January 1942 An editorial on “Imagineering” in the Chicago Sunday Times notes that “The anti-imagineer was against bathtubs when they were invented. He insisted that bathing was unhealthy.”
- September 1942 The Baltimore Sun (the very paper Mencken worked for) reports the phacts in an article entitled “Bathtub’s United States Centennial.”
- April 1951 John Hersey reports in The New Yorker that President Truman would tell the story about Fillmore’s bathtub when he showed visitors around the White House.
- September 1952 President Truman uses the bathtub story during a speech in Philadelphia.
- April 1954 radio commentator Paul Gibson tells the complete bogus history in his newscast.
And, more recently…
Curtis MacDougall ends his list by saying: “If the publishers will include a blank page or two after this one, dear reader, you can continue this chronology yourself.” With that in mind, here are some examples (send me more if you find them!):
- Grolier Online reports that Fillmore installed the first White House bathtub.
- The Hall of American Presidents reported that Millard Fillmore “saw the first bathtub and the first library installed in the White House.”
- The History of Plumbing in America from Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine (July 1987) notes that “In 1835, the Common Council of Philadelphia almost banned wintertime bathing (the ordinance failed by two votes). Ten years later, Boston forbade bathing except on specific medical advice.”
- The Firsts by First Ladies page claimed that Abigail Powers Fillmore had the first bathtub installed in the White House.
- The Historical Facts and Fictions page listed “Millard Fillmore had the first bathtub installed in the White House” on the “facts” side.
- The Biblioteca Pública por Internet claims that “[t]he White House’s first library, bathtub and kitchen stove were installed by the Fillmores.”
- Another American Presidents page insists that “Fillmore installed the first bathtub and kitchen stove in the White House.”
- An article in Backwoods Home Magazine called Former First Ladies says: “It was during Fillmore’s administration that piped water was brought to the White House, and Abigail had the first bathtub installed.”
- Terry Jordan’s Advanced Placement United States History Page claimed that “[t]he White House’s first library, bathtub and kitchen stove were installed by the Fillmores.”
- According to this Presidential Trivia page, “[Fillmore] installed the first bathtub and kitchen stove in the White House.”
- Little Known Facts About Presidents notes that Fillmore “had the FIRST library, bathtub, and kitchen stove installed in the White House.”
- The book “Presidential Anecdotes” by Paul F. Boller, Jr., apparently claims “that Mrs. Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the White House (in the face of severe public criticism).”
- Ross McSwain cites the Mammoth Book of Trivia as his source for the information that “Although the ancient Greeks, Romans and Cretans enjoyed soaking in tubs or pools of hot water centuries before the time of Christ, it was not until 1850 that Millard Fillmore, then the U.S. President, got the same opportunity.”
- Jack Craig claims that Fillmore “was the first president to have a stepmother and installed the first library, bathtub and kitchen stove in the White House.”
- Fun Facts to Know About the White House Residents has an interesting mutation: “Franklin Pierce ordered the first bathtub for the White House. Many people were upset. They thought taking baths was not healthy and would make you sick!”
- Someone liked the factoid so much that it became their answering machine message.
- Carl Heintze, in this editorial, noted that “the nation has survived such as Millard Fillmore, whose chief claim to fame was that he brought the first bathtub and cook stove into the White House…”
- Robin’s E-Posts repeated the story.
- The Presidential Pet Museum tells us that “His wife encouraged him to make many improvements to the White House such as the first bathtub…”
- Bathtubs, a list of bathtub-related trivia from Janet Spencer, both repeated the hoax as fact, and mentioned Mencken’s hoax as additional trivia!
- The Do-It-Yourself Network, oddly, headed up a list of home improvement tips with “President Millard Fillmore had the first bathtub in the White House in 1851.”
- Newsletter filler for Presidents’ Day holiday includeed the fictitious trivia.
- This edition of The Groundhog made Millard Fillmore one of its “Picks of the Month,” saying “he put the first bathtub in the White House. What a cool guy.”
- The Washington Post repeated the hoax in November 2001, writing that “President Millard Fillmore was criticized for indulging in ‘monarchical luxury’ when he had a bathtub installed in the White House.”
- According to this page “Near the end of July, Fillmore Days are held one weekend in Moravia [New York]. Stop by then and you’ll get to see bathtubs racing each other down Main Street! It’s all in honor of President Millard Fillmore who installed the first bathtub in the White House.”
- “Historical Facts and Fictions” listed the hoax, but on the “facts” list. Shhhhh. Don’t tell ’em.
- More Presidential Trivia you can trust.
- Here we go again.
- Easy Fun School both links to this very page and tells us that “the White House’s first library, bathtub and kitchen stove were installed by the Fillmores.”
- JWhiz’s Presidential Facts Page also says that Fillmore was the first to “Have a Bathtub with Running Water in the White House.”
- The Ronald Reagan Foundation wouldn’t lie to us, would it?
- PhiLL’s Site Of Useless Information told us that “The first bath tub to be installed in the white house was during the time of Millard Fillmore.”
- In “Millard Fillmore, the Buffalo Benefactor”, Dr. Joseph A. Grande informs us that “Fillmore endorsed a series of controversial congressional measures called the Compromise of 1850 and the breakup of the Union was averted for a decade. (While in office, he also installed the first bathtub in the White House).”
- This page informs us that Fillmore was the “First President to put a bathtub in the White House, it later fell through the ceiling.”
- You are at the Trivia page! So find out something trivial about Millard Fillmore and the bathtub he installed at the White House.
|On This Day in Snigglery
|February 27, 1997: “Circles of broken glass marked off with police tape confused students and public safety…” (See No Suspects; No Motive for more info)