Courtesy of The Board of Elections in the City of New York, although they unfortunately have plenty of company over the years. The claim that Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the White House may seem like a harmless bit of trivia, but it has a fascinating history, and gives us a valuable lesson in trusting our sources.
H.L. Mencken and the Bathtub Hoax
In 1917, the great American writer H.L. Mencken penned an article in the New York Evening Mail called A Neglected Anniversary. In it, he gave an interesting and detailed account of the history of the bathtub. The only problem was that he made it all up. He used official sounding, but completely fabricated publications as “sources”, like the Western Medical Repository, and the Christian Register. In his hoax, he used specific dates and names, and told entertaining stories of the bathtub’s tumultuous history in America. This included examples of backlash by the government against the bathtub, and even the medical establishment’s condemnation of it. Passages like this show his convincing “history”:
Late in 1843, for example, 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in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed
Towards the end of the article, Mencken tells us of Millard Fillmore’s involvement with the bathtub:
But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that, even more than the grudging medical approval, gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States…
…was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three. In 1862 bathing was introduced into the Army by Gen. McClellan, and in 1870 the first prison bathtub was set up at Moyamensing Prison, in Philadelphia.
While Mencken likely got a kick out of duping some readers initially, the hoax quickly took on a life of its own. To Mencken’s surprise, he soon found his lies being repeated in many outlets. Less respected “quacks” used it to show the supposed ignorance of medical professionals, while medical professionals also used it to show the improvement in America’s hygiene. It was alluded to in Congressional speeches, and even respected scholarly and reference publications cited Mencken’s lies to enhance the previously drab history of the bathtub and Millard Fillmore’s presidency. Bizarrely, Mencken received accounts from some readers corroborating his made up stories! Not only were his bathtub lies tricking some unsuspecting readers, they had entrenched themselves firmly into US history folklore.
Eventually, Mencken had enough, and in 1926, penned an article in the Chicago Tribune called Melancholy Reflections. In it, he finally told the world that everything about the bathtub history he printed in 1917 “was pure buncome”. However, it did not have the purifying effects he hoped. Just a couple months later, he felt compelled to write another column for the Tribune, Hymn to the Truth, where he lamented that, even after his retraction, the Boston Herald had just printed “facts” from his original bathtub article!
Sure enough, the fake history of the bathtub lived on. While some scholars came to their senses and did the research to debunk it, many respected outlets continued to spread the lies. The amount of references in media and popular culture are legion, and too numerous to list here, but some notable highlights include:
- 1935: Dr. Hans Zinsser, a professor at the Medical School of Harvard University, published a book Rats, Lice and History, which asserted Mencken’s lies that the first bathtubs appeared in America around 1840.
- 1936: Dr. Shirley W. Wynne, former commissioner of health for New York City, repeats the lies in a radio address, “What Is Public Health?”
- 1942: In an article called “Bathtub’s United States Centennial”, Mencken’s story of Adam Thompson inventing the bathtub was reprinted. This was noteworthy, because it was printed in The Baltimore Sun, the same paper Mencken wrote for!
- 1951: John Hersey revealed in the New Yorker that President Truman used the Millard Fillmore bathtub reference when giving visitors tours. A year later, Truman used the Fillmore reference in a speech on public health.
- 2001: The Washington Post published an article that repeated Mencken’s line that President Fillmore was criticized for indulging in “monarchical luxuries” by installing the first bathtub.
- Currently, Classroomhelp.com lists that Fillmore installed the first bathtub on their tutorial about President Fillmore, as does potus.com.
The bathtub hoax seems fairly benign and a harmless piece of false trivia, as it’s of little importance to most people if Millard Fillmore really installed the first bathtub. However, the tale does have much broader and serious implications about how we obtain our knowledge.
The reason Mencken felt driven to create it in the first place was due to the propaganda and misreporting of events during World War 1. Being culturally pro-German, he grew frustrated as the media started a narrative portraying Germans as blood thirsty barbarians in the lead up to America’s involvement in the war. Stories of Germans performing horrible acts, like bayoneting babies and amputating boys’ hands were popularly reported in the news, but later found to be false. Proper standards of investigation and fact checking were abandoned in the rush for war propaganda. The result was the escalation, and US involvement in a war that killed millions. Indeed, Mencken puts our entire historical knowledge into question with his hoax. If his lies could find their way into scholarly articles and reference sources, what else might be accepted knowledge that we’ve been duped by? As Mencken puts it in Melancholy Reflections:
It is out of such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess- or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie- ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books.
There are ways of acquiring knowledge that are reliable, but they must be done methodically and adhere to the process of reason. Often, this goes against human nature and public popularity, but it’s important to adhere to these principles if the truth is valued. Again, Mencken sums it up well:
The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.