On This Date in History: According to H.L. Mencken, the first bathtub was installed in the White House in 1851 by President Millard Fillmore. Mencken wrote in a New York newspaper that the first bathtub in the United States was an “elegant mahogany contraption” installed in the home of a Cincinnati businessman in 1842. He said after that point, that the practice of bathing became popular with the wealthy. He said when word reached the masses a public outcry against the “epicurean and obnoxious toy from England” was “designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the republic.” Mencken added that it was Fillmore was responsible for the public’s acceptance for the habit of regular bathing. On this day in 1917, Mencken was basking in the glow created by his article in the New York Evening Mail titled” A Neglected Anniversary.”
He was probably still chuckling the day after his work was published because it was an elaborate hoax. December 1917 was a time of great sadness around the world due to World War I. He decided that a spoof on bathtub history would be a good way to raise the spirits fo his readers. And who better to include in the hoax but the historically hapless Millard Fillmore. Mencken’s joy turned to shock when he learned that his words were taken as Gospel. In 1926, he was so uneasy with the fact that his fiction was considered to be real history that he wrote a public confession of his hoax. But, no one listened and the result of his little tale have continued to this day with some sources claiming that Fillmore did indeed install the first bathtub in the White House. The real truth is that copper bathtubs and a shower were installed in the Executive Mansion on the first floor in 1833 or 1834. A permanent bathtub was put in the second floor of the White House in 1853. Mencken would have been better off publishing a true story about the White House bathtub. President William Howard Taft was 6’2″ and weighed a rotund 300 pounds. He had once become stuck in the normal presidential tub. So, he installed a tub that was 41 inches across and 7 feet long. It is said that it could hold four regular size men. The truth was stranger than fiction and this little story may be a good example of how if a lie is told enough times by enough people, then the lie becomes the truth. It also may be a good example of how we should not necessarily believe everything that we read. And then again, perhaps it is telling that William Howard Taft is best known for being the fattest president, having a huge bathtub, standing up in the middle of the 7th inning to begin the “7th inning stretch” tradition and splitting the ticket with Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign and vaulting Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. The fact that he was the only person to serve as President and Supreme Court Chief Justice gets lost. He was also Secretary of War. Maybe if he’d done something more interesting while holding the important jobs then he wouldn’t be remembered as he is. But, it could be worse, he could be remembered like Millard Fillmore who is but a footnote. Besides, its more fun this way.