The Bath Tub Hoax
From The Chronicle Vol. 2, No. 5, June 1938
By Joseph E. Sandford
[Mr. H.’ L. Mencken, to whom I submitted the following article for his comments, has written me as follows: “So far as I am concerned you are certainly quite free to print the enclosed. I have read it with great interest and amusement.”]
On Friday, December 28, 1917, there appeared in the New York Evening Mail an article by H. L. Mencken – “A Neglected Anniversary.” It purported to give the history of the bath tub in the United States. This account found its way into serious periodicals, the transactions of learned societies, was alluded to in Congress and even crept into standard works of reference. It was a hoax.
On May 23, 1926, “having undergone a spiritual rebirth and put off Sin” – Mr. Mencken confessed and appealed to the pedagogues and historians to stop spreading the balderdash he had fathered. This appeal was printed simultaneously in the newspapers of thirty large cities, but the well-wrought fabrication remained alive. The Boston Herald intimated that the confession was a hoax, and on the June thirteenth following reprinted the “ten-year-old-fake” – promoting it to the first page of the Editorial Section – “Soberly as a piece of news.” The confession was included in Mr. Mencken’s book Prejudices: Sixth Series, published in 1927, from which a condensed version “Hymn to Truth” was printed in the Readers’ Digest, October, 1937.
So that Mr. Mencken’s “preposterous facts” may be recognized when they are met, a Iist of them made from the Evening Mail article of December 28, 1917 is here given: (1) On authority of a surgeon of the Public Health Department, Washington, D.C., (2) Adam Thompson, Cincinnati, O., (3) dealer in cotton and grain, (4) learned of the bath tub on a trip to England (5) Lord John Russell introduced the bath tub in England (6) and took daily baths in 1835. (7) Adam Thompson invented a ham and bacon bagging machine. (8) Adam Thompson built the first modern bathroom, in his Cincinnati home, near the present corner of Monastary and Oregon Streets. ( 9) The water for it was drawn from a garden well, with a hand-pumper, (10) to a cypress tank in the garret. (11) A hot water pipe was coiled in the kitchen chimney. (12) This tub was made by James Gui…ness [type battered], a leading Cincinnati cabinet maker, ( 13) of Nicaragua mahogany. (14) It was nearly seven feet long, quite four feet wide, lined with sheet lead, and soldered. (15) It weighed about 1,750 lbs. (16) The floor was reinforced to support it. (17) Its exterior was made of polished wood. (18) On Dec. 20, 1842, Adam Thompson took a cold bath in the morning and a warm bath in the afternoon. (19) The water was heated to a temperature of 105 degrees. (20) A party of gentlemen dined at Adam Thompson’s house on Christmas Day, 1842. The tub was shown and its use demonstrated. (21) Four of the party, including a French visitor, Col. Duchane!, tried the bath tub. (22) Next clay “all the Cincinnati newspapers” described it and opened their columns to a violent discussion of it. (23) The Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843, said that bathing in a bathtub invited phthisis, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of lung and the whole category of zymotic diseases. (24) In 1843, the Philadelphia Common Council came within two votes of passing an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November first and March fifteenth. (25) In the same year Virginia taxed each bath tub $30 a year. (26) In Hartford, Providence, Charleston, and Wilmington, Del., heavy water rates were levied on bath tubs. (27) In 1845, Boston made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice. The ordinance was not enforced and was repealed in 1862. (28) In 1845, a bath tub cost $500 in New York City. (29) A common pine bath tub, zinc lined, was invented by John F. Simpson, a Brooklyn plumber, in 1847. (30) After 1848, New York plumbers were equipped for bath tub installations. (31) The Christian Register, of July 17, 1857, said that the first New York bath tub was installed on Sept. 12, 1847 and that by 1850, there were nearly 1,000 in New York City. (32) The American Medical Association held its 1849 annual meeting in Boston; 55 per cent of the members voted the use of the bath tub harmless. ( 33) At the American Medical Association meeting in 1850, the use of the bath tub was approved. (34) Homeopaths approved it in 1850. (35) In March, 1850, Millard Fillmore visited Cincinnati and tried Thompson’s bath tub (Thompson was then dead) – this according to Fillmore’s biographer, Chamberlain. (36) President Fillmore directed the Secretary of War, General Charles M. Conrad to get bids for the first White House bath tub. ( 37) Bennett, the elder, of the New York Herald accused Fillmore of wanting to get the alabaster and porphyry bath tubs of Louis Phillippe from Versailles. (38) Harper and Gillespie – “a firm of Philadelphia engineers” installed the first White House bath tub early in 1851. (39) It was made of thin cast iron (40)and remained in the White House until Cleveland’s first administration. (41) By 1860, newspaper advertisements showed that all New York hotels had bath tubs. (42) In 1862, General MacClellan, introduced the use of the bath tub in the army. (43) In 1870, the first prison bath tub was placed in Moyamensiny Prison at Philadelphia.
There may be those who, like the Boston Herald, regard Mr. Mencken’s Confession as the hoax. They may be interested in the following. Neither Adam Thompson nor cabinet maker “James Gui…ness” appear in D. H. Schafer’s for 1840, nor in Cist’s Cincinnati Directory for 1843. A search of the Cincinnati Gazette, from December 20, 1842 to the end of the year, shows no bath tub inauguration nor bath tub controversy. The Western Medical Repository does not appear in the great Union List of Serials (New York, 1927). The American Medical Association held its second annual meeting at Boston in 1849, but N. S. Davis’ History of the American Medical Association has no word of bath tubs in the account of that meeting. There is nothing to show that Millard Fillmore ever had a biographer by the name of Chamberlain. A. McElroy’s Philadelphia Directory for 1850, lists no firm of Harper and Gillespie, and neither a Harper nor a Gillespie is listed as an engineer or iron founder.
There seems to be no evidence that the American public of the early nineteenth century thought bathing unhealthy, but quite the contrary. Gordon’s Gazetteer of New York (1836) says that at Holtz Hotel – “A steam engine is employed to raise the provisions from the kitchens and water for the baths.” And the Boston Almanac for 1841 lists ten public baths in that city, three of which were in hotels. Even the Cincinnati Directory for 1840 lists “The Arcade Bathhouse,” which in 1843, advertised in Cist’s Cincinnati Directory – “Spare Bathing tubs, for the accommodation of Invalids, sent to any part of the city.” Mr. Mencken told the truth when he confessed.
As time goes on, Adam Thompson’s bath tub will probably continue to flood us with misinformation, and new designs will appear on its polished mahogany sides. Already an anonymous Prime Minister has taken Lord John Russell’s place in one account (Lord John was Prime Minister of England, but not until 1846). Thompson has become a “cattle and grain merchant” – the Christmas party has been set back to December 20th and the Boston repeal is dated 1852 instead of 1862, which demonstrates the difficulty of keeping the record straight – even a hoax.
Editor’s note: The print article included no images; those shown here (along with their captions) at from The Smithsonian. For an actual history of tub bathing (which also references Mencken’s hoax!) see “The History of the Bathtub” at Old House Online.