Hoaxes in History H. L. Mencken's Bathtub Hoax Part 1

About the famous hoax when journalist H. L. Mencken wrote a phony history of the bathtub in America which was taken as fact.


H. L. Mencken's Bathtub Hoax

H.L. Mencken was an iconoclastic newspaper writer and editor who flourished in the first half of the 20th century. He hurled barbs and bitter quips at groups and individuals who attracted his jaundiced eye, and achieved great notoriety in his heyday. Mencken did not have much hope for the mentality of the mass of men; he even coined the term "booboisie" to express his contempt for the majority of his fellows on earth. It is surprising, then, that he affected to be startled by the unquestioning acceptance given to an article he wrote for the New York Evening Mail on Dec. 28, 1917.

Mencken called his piece "A Neglected Anniversary." In it he purported to give the natural history of the plumbed bathtub in America. Mencken advised his readers that Dec. 10 of that year had been the 75th anniversary of the introduction of this indoor facility to America. He said the convenience had been seen here first in Cincinnati in 1842.

Mencken said a man named Adam Thompson had become acquainted with the device while on a European jaunt. In England Thompson had met Lord John Russell, who supposedly had introduced tubbing to that country. Thompson decided to be the innovator in America.

Upon returning to the U.S., Thompson ordered the construction of a splendid mahogany unit lined with lead to prevent rot. The tub was introduced at a Cincinnati stag party, at which the chief source of merriment was stripping to the buff and settling down into the contrivance, each man in his turn.

Mencken said that Thompson was a wealthy man, a dealer in cotton and grain, and that he hoped mainly for prestige from his introduction of the bathtub. He did not expect to make money; rather, he wished merely to be recognized as a public benefactor for having brought the tub to the attention of his countrymen.

Alas, reported Mencken, it did not turn out that way. Physicians decried the tub, saying it was dangerous to a person's health to use it. Three cities charged extra for any water used in the newfangled devices. The Boston city fathers prohibited its use, except under stringent medical supervision. Philadelphia, Mencken wrote, almost passed a law forbidding bathtub use in winter months.

But the bathtub had somehow caught the public's fancy despite initial opposition. Finally Pres. Millard Fillmore, ignoring negative grumblings, bravely ordered the installation of a tub in the White House and took the first presidential bath.

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