H L Mencken (1880 – 1956) and the Bathtub
Sometimes what is intended to be a bit of harmless fun gets out of hand and once the metaphorical cat is out of the bag it is difficult to regain control. A classic example of this is the curious case of the respected journalist and so-called sage of Baltimore, H L Mencken, and the history of the bathtub.
It was the dark days of December 1917. America had entered the First World War, something Mencken opposed, and news from the front was dreadful. In order, as Mencken said later, “to have some harmless fun in war days” he wrote an article on the history of the bath tub which was published in the New York Evening Mail. In it Mencken claimed that Adam Thompson installed the first bath, made of mahogany and lined with sheet lead, in Cincinnati on 20th December 1843. It caused a storm, some attacking it as an example of epicurean luxury whilst some medics claimed that bathing in this fashion was detrimental to one’s health.
It was Millard Fillimore, claimed Mencken, who gave the bath a fillip. When Vice President he visited Cincinnati, had a bath, felt no ill effects and quite enjoyed the experience. When he was elected President in 1850, Fillimore had one installed in the White House and the rest is history. But of course it wasn’t, it was all bunkum and was a hoax designed to test the gullibility of the general public and fellow journalists.
The fact that it was written by Mencken, was well-written and seemed plausible meant that the story had legs. To Mencken’s surprise his article appeared in a number of other journals and many papers printed abbreviated versions. It was then picked up by learned journals and histories of public hygiene and once it had taken root in the groves of academe, it was well-nigh impossible to shift.
Eight years later Mencken decided to own up to his hoax, writing a front-page article for the Chicago Tribune on 23rd May 1926, entitled Melancholy Reflections. In his mea culpa he wrote, “This article..was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious..[it] was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!”
He went on, “Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men.. I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion…” In 1949 he wrote, “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.”
The story wouldn’t die. Between his exposure of his own hoax and 1958, according to Curtis MacDougall, there had been thirty-eight instances of Mencken’s story being presented to the general public as fact. It still persists. A Kia advert in January 2008 for Soap on a Roap repeated the canard without realising they had been had.