December 20: The Neglected Anniversary

On December 20 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.

So wrote H.L. Mencken in 1917 in an article entitled “The Neglected Anniversary,” an amusement that turned into one of the most enduring hoaxes of the early 20th century. Mencken’s faux history of the bathtub, published on December 28 in the New York Evening Mail, claimed it was imported to America from England by a plumber named Adam Thompson in 1842. Thompson’s contrivance proved to be unpopular, however, deemed “undemocratic” and unsanitary:

During the same year the Legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up. In Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington special and very heavy water rates were laid on persons who had bathtubs. Boston in 1845 made bathing unlawful except on medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

Ultimately, according to Mencken, it was President Millard Fillmore who gave the bathtub legitimacy by bathing in it “with no ill effects.” He had one installed in the White House, and the rest is history.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. The article was a confabulation from start to finish, either good clean fun or a deliberate hoax to test the gullibility of the general public, depending on whom you ask. Either way, the story took off in the 1917 equivalent of going viral, cited in followup articles and histories of public hygiene all the way into the 21st century—as recently as 2004, when the Washington Post pointed out the Fillmore factoid as a snippet and had to run a retraction several days later. Bathtubs have been in use since Roman times, in fact, and have never been denounced as unhygienic. But the public believes what it wants to believe, and little has changed there. Mencken himself had disavowed the whole thing in a 1926 Chicago Tribune column:

It is out of just 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. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik…

And so the more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe December 20th needs to be declared a different kind of of holiday—a Patron Day of the gullible, of the viral, of the fake Twitter account and the absolute democracy of Wikipedia. In honor of which, Like Fire suggests, everyone should go ahead and take a bath.

(via Reader’s Almanac. Illustration by Paul F. Berndanier in the Chronicle-Telegram, November 18, 1935.)

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1 Comment to December 20: The Neglected Anniversary

  1. December 21, 2010 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    I don’t think there is any question that Mencken intended it as a jab at gullibility in time of war.

    Mencken wrote an introduction to the piece in a later book, A Mencken Chrestomathy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1949):

    The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity . . . Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.

  1. By on January 16, 2011 at 11:06 pm

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