The invention of the bathtub
This week’s Friday funny, delivered to you by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, examines the advent of the bathtub and a fictional article that appeared in the New York Evening Mail in December 1917 that claimed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the coming of the bathtub to America
On December 28 1917 an article appeared in the New York Evening Mail:
“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.”
The article went on to explain that the bathtub had been brought to America by Adam Thompson, a Cinncinnati merchant who frequently visited England in the 1830s.
“The bathtub was then still a novelty in England. It had been introduced in 1828 by Lord John Russell and its use was yet confined to a small class of enthusiasts. Moreover, the English bathtub, then as now, was a puny and inconvenient contrivance — little more, in fact, than a glorified dishpan — and filling and emptying it required the attendance of a servant. Taking a bath, indeed, was a rather heavy ceremony, and Lord John in 1835 was said to be the only man in England who had yet come to doing it every day.”
Thompson decided he would build a much bigger bath. He commissioned an enormous one made of mahogany and lined with sheet lead. It was installed in his home and first used on December 20 1842.
Soon, all Cinncinnati was talking about it.
“On the one hand it was denounced as an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic, and on the other hand it was attacked by the medical faculty as dangerous to health and a certain inviter of “phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases.” (I quote from the Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843.)”
The controversy spread across America. Some cities taxed bathtubs, others banned them outright, while politicians turned bathing into a class issue as only the very wealthy could afford to install baths. Eventually, the American medical profession began to regard bathing as beneficial or, at worst, harmless. When, in 1851, President Millard Fillmore had a bathtub installed at the White House, all opposition collapsed.
S”o much for the history of the bathtub in America,” concluded the article. “One is astonished, on looking into it, to find that so little of it has been recorded. The literature, in fact, is almost nil. But perhaps this brief sketch will encourage other inquirers and so lay the foundation for an adequate celebration of the centennial in 1942.“
The article was written by author, journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) and the whole thing was a complete work of fiction. Most people fell for it when it was published (the paper printed a retraction a few days later) and they were still falling for it years later. It helped, of course, that Mencken knew his history and could make it look so utterly convincing.
In the introduction to a collection of some of his writings in 1949, Mencken said:
“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.”
The town of Moravia in New York state, which is close to President Fillmore’s birthplace, holds an annual race for wheeled bathtubs each year in honour of the hoax.
It does beg the question as to how the modern practice of bathing and how modern bathtubs came about. That story is long, complicated and intriguing. If you’re interested, a good place to start is Lawrence Wright’s hugely entertaining Clean and Decent; the Fascinating History of the Bathroom & the Water Closet, and of Sundry Habits, Fashions & Accessories of the Toilet, Principally in Great Britain, France & America which has run to several editions since 1960 and which people keep borrowing off me and not returning.
I picked up my present copy at a National Trust gift shop last year, and no, you can’t borrow it.