Semper letteris mandate
With a few strokes of his pen, Henry Louis (H. L.) Mencken gave life to one of America’s most persistent hoaxes, still frequently cited as fact almost 100 years later.
Mencken’s “jocosity,” as he would later call his hoax, appeared in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917. Entitled “A Neglected Anniversary,” the 1,800 word article bemoaned the fact that the 75th anniversary of America’s introduction to the bathtub had been completely ignored.
“On December 20,” he said, “there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.”
His story was a masterpiece of detail, from a short history of Adam Thompson, the Cincinnati corn and grain shipper Mencken credited with designing and installing the device, to the social and medical controversy with which it was supposedly met.
Thompson, according to Mencken’s story, was a frequent visitor to England where he become entranced with the idea of daily bathing, a practice only recently pioneered by Lord John Russell in 1828. Even in England, however, it had been taken up only by a “small class of enthusiasts” due to the fact that it was “a puny and inconvenient contrivance.” Thompson, being a man of “inventive fancy” (Mencken even mentions that he “later devised the machine used for bagging hams and bacon”), decided to make the tub significantly larger and to supply and drain the water through a series of pipes.
Thompson took his first bath on December 20, 1842, and by the next day all of Cincinnati was buzzing with the news of the new contraption.
As word of the device spread, however, it was quickly met with a “bitter and double- headed opposition.”
“On the one hand it was denounced as an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic, and on the other hand it was attacked by the medical faculty as dangerous to health and a certain inviter of ‘phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases.’ (I quote from the Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843.)”
Not content to let his story rest here, Mencken continues by following the ensuing battle through its numerous fictional stages.
“Late in 1843, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.”
The popularity of the bathtub, however, was given a powerful boost when vice-president, Millard Fillmore passed through Cincinnati shortly after Thompson’s death and inspected the Thompson tub. After taking a bath and experiencing no ill effects “he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.”
According to Mencken, the article, which he called “a tissue of somewhat heavy absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious,” had no other purpose than “to have some harmless fun in war days,” although there are those who think maybe the old codger had a bit more in mind.
Wendy McElroy, in The Bathtub, Mencken, and War, notes: “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.”
If Mencken’s purpose was to show the public’s gullibility, it worked beyond his most fervent expectations. His bogus history of the bathtub in America was picked up and retold through numerous articles, histories, and speeches. “Soon,” he wrote, “I began to encounter my preposterous ‘facts’ in the writings of other men.” He confessed to the hoax in May of 1926. Ironically, the Boston Herald reprinted his confession in June of 1926, the same issue in which the original hoax was retold as fact. Mencken repeated his confession in July of the same year, only to see Scribner’s magazine print “Bathtubs, Early Americans,” which once again reported as fact the details of Thompson’s bathtub.
Even the medical profession got into the act, with various branches accusing the other of having been complicit in objecting to the use of bathtubs:
“The chiropractors and other such quacks collared [these bogus fact] 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.”
In 1958, Curtis D. MacDougall wrote the book Hoaxes in which he gives a partial chronology of the tale’s journey through the years, including an address to the National Trade Extension Bureau of the Plumbing and Heating Industry in 1927, a House Beautiful magazine story in 1930, and a U.S. Federal Housing Administration article in 1935. More recently, in 2001 The Washington Post wrote a piece which included the information that “President Millard Fillmore was criticized for indulging in ‘monarchical luxury’ when he had a bathtub installed in the White House,” while a website called “Firsts by First Ladies” takes a more feminist approach and attributes the installation of the first bathtub in the White House to President Fillmore’s wife, Abigail Powers Fillmore.