H. L. Mencken's 75th Anniversary of the Bathtub

About a story that ran in the New York Evening Mail, a fake history of the bathtub written by H. L. Mencken.


5. A NEGLECTED ANNIVERSARY New York Evening Mail, 1917

Satirist H. L. Mencken, whose acerbic comments frequently jolted the reading public, was the perpetrator of a hoax that lingered on in the media for years. Mencken, incidentally, was a second-generation hoaxer. His father before him was fond of spreading ridiculous rumors; e.g., the collapse of the Brooklyn Bridge, the mass transfer of the entire population of Holland to the U.S., and Otto von Bismarck's giving up his job as chancellor of Germany to start a Milwaukee brewery. H.L.'s newspaper story was supposedly in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub to the U.S. He himself called it a "tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and obvious" after it was exposed nearly 10 years later. But no matter how deliberate and obvious the tissue of lies, it was believed, perhaps because of its convincing detail. The story said that one Adam Thompson was the owner of the first bathtub in the U.S.; that the tub was connected to plumbing in Cincinnati in 1842; that physicians denounced the bathtub as a menace to public health; and that the Philadelphia City Council tried to pass an ordinance against its use in winter. Mencken quoted the Western Medical Repository as saying that the bathtub "softens the moral fibre of the Republic." He said President Millard Fillmore had installed the first White House bathtub. The article was taken seriously. At least one Harvard professor quoted it, and its "facts" showed up in scholarly journals. On confessing his hoax, Mencken said, "In the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have committed some vague and sinister crime against the U.S., and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia."

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