Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub?


History is a study of what happened and why. Often, high school and college studies of history are ruined by rote memorization of a long list of dates with a couple of words describing an event. That is not history. Often, studies of history are ruined through unreliable sources.

H. L. Mencken, the famous newspaper columnist from Baltimore, wrote a column published December 28, 1917, about the history of the bathtub, specifically that it was rare in the U.S., and how President Millard Fillmore introduced it to the White House, thereby making bathtubs and bathing popular. The column was brilliant, and it was a complete fabrication, a hoax. Within two years, however, Mencken’s column had found its way to reference books, encyclopedias, and bad history books. Here is Mencken’s original column: “A Neglected Anniversary.”  [3/19/2009 - that link is dead; see Mencken's column here.]  You can read a history of the hoax and its spread at this site, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

It’s a great story, about a do-nothing president, the press, and errors of history. To know the story, dates are unimportant. No one cares what years Fillmore was actually in office, no one cares exactly when Mencken’s column was published. Knowing lists of dates has never stopped a bad historian from reciting the erroneous claim that Millard Fillmore introduced the concept of bathing in a bathtub to the White House.

But now you know better.

This site is dedicated to knowing history, especially U.S. history, better.

Thank you for visiting. Noodle around, see what articles are here, leave some comments if you care to. Especially, if you find errors, leave a note of correction.

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23 Responses to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub?

  1. [...] others know U.S. history better, hence the origin of the curious name for his blog, which was a journalism hoax that claimed President Millard Fillmore introduced the bathtub. Students, parents and teachers can [...]

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  2. [...] them. Upon hearing them, who could forget the apocryphal legend about Millard Fillmore buying a bathtub, or the true legend about fat ol’ Taft getting stuck in one? 5. It’s easier if the [...]

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    John Adams was the first president to have a bathtub in the White House — and he was also the first president to live there! Tubs were common place in homes of people with any means at all by the early 1700s, a hundred years prior to the White House being occupied.

    The dispute comes when we try to figure out who put in the first tub that was plumbed with running water, and then running hot water. Ironically, it may be that Fillmore was the first to get the plumbed bathtub on the second floor, but it looks like Pierce or Taylor had a tub with hot and cold running water prior to Fillmore.

    Part of Mencken’s hoax was the claim that bathing was considered unhealthy at the time. That’s completely false. I have a link to Mencken’s original article above — everything there should be treated as probably completely false.

    The realy mystery is, how do we let students know their composition is complete hooey? This is especially difficult if the research came out of Grandpa’s library . . .

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  4. David Meadows says:

    I am a teacher at a small Chicago suburban elementary school. A student recently reported that Fillmore was the first President to have a bathtub in the White House. I have read quite a bit about the tub hoax, but was wondering if you could clarify something for me: is the hoax the fact that American’s didn’t bathe till Fillmore put in a tub, but my students statement that the first tub in the White House came under Fillmore true? If not Fillmore, what US Predident had the first tub installed. Thanks!

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  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Are y’all related to President Fillmore, Scott and Judi?

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  6. scott & judi says:

    We live near Trenton, NJ, where President Taft’s bathtub was made by the Maddock Co. We don’t have the date handy, but this is a well-known fact in Trenton history. There is definitely a photo of several factory workers sitting inside the tub before it was shipped to WDC. If anyone wants more info, we can get it…or you can check with the Trenton Historical Society.

    Also, we LOVE this website named for MFB. We are writing a history of our family’s business. We have found that many of the very few things which have been published about it in the past were highly inaccurate and undocumented. We have tracked down a few of them. Unfortunately, since this mis-information is already in print, it will be very hard for us to print anything new (no matter how well-documented) that anyone will believe and will un-learn. Our research is not the problem, but rather the willingness of some people to believe anything which they read is astounding to us!

    We found this website because we were running down the info currently being blasted into our living rooms on the Kia car commercials and their offering of a MF soap-on-a-rope to celebrate their Unheardof Presidents Day Sale. MF supposedly had the first bathtub in the White House with indoor plumbing.

    Glad we found you! Keep up the good work!

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  7. [...] I thought the offense of repeating the historical error about Fillmore and White House bathtubs was excusable for the courage to use Fillmore to advertise anything. You have to tip your back [...]

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  8. [...] We know Mencken was only foolin’. [...]

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  9. Tom Green says:

    I give flag programs for schools and civic groups, and Millard Fillmore is one of the Presidents that I talk about. He was the 13th president and I always ask who the 13th president was. Only one child had answered correctly out of about 15,000 children! I bring up his name by saying that his grandfather is said to have carried the Bennington Flag during the American Revolutionary battle which enabled the Colonial Army to defeat the British Army at the Battle of Saratoga. The lack of supplies, that could have been obtained at Bennington, Vermont could have prevented the British from having to surrender a few weeks later. This victory at Saratoga caused the French to openly join the Revolution on our side and their participation was the main reason England finally gave up the war.

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  10. [...] Good heavens! They’ve got all the points of the Millard Fillmore/bathtub in the White House hoax — but…! [...]

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  11. [...] How many times today can you find someone telling you the equivalent of “I’m sure Millard Fillmore put the first plumbed bathtub in the White House, because I have faith he did — and he probably invented plumbing, too?” Explore posts [...]

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  12. Tony Whitson says:

    As a high school student in 1968 I was shown a bathtub in the basement of the capitol building that supposedly was used by Clay or Calhoun or somebody. The tour was part of a program sponsored by the Hearst family (all the siblings & spouses of Patty’s parents were there). We spent a week seeing how everybody from the House clerk to the President (but most of all the senators from California) will suck up to you if you have tons of money and own a chain of newspapers. Anyway, we did get special treatment on the tours we took of buildings like the Capitol.

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  13. edarrell says:

    A photograph? Whose century? Life magazine covered the 20th century, was not around when Fillmore was president . . . are you pulling my leg?

    Who gets credit for the photograph? I wonder where it exists, if it does.

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  14. Edwin Aldrich says:

    Note recently published Life book, “Our Century in Pictures,” page 11. Caption refers to Pres. Millard Fillmore stunning the nation by installing a bathtub in the White House. Guess the decline of Time-Life includes the downsizing of the once-notable fact-checking corps.

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  15. [...] Thank you for visiting. Noodle around, see what articles are here, leave some comments if you care to. Especially, if you find errors, leave a note of correction. [...]

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  16. [...] My complaint about what is called “intelligent design” in biology is the same complaint I have against people who wish to crown Millard Fillmore as a great light for bringing plumbing to the White House over the complaints of health officials — that is, my complaint against those who push H. L. Mencken’s hoax over the facts. [...]

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  17. Gentlewoman says:

    Of course, I am assuming that by bathtub, most people are referring to modern, plumbed-in bathtubs. Because other sorts of bathing tubs and pools have been used throughout human history.

    Back when running water wasn’t common in houses and servants were (for the upper classes), bathtubs were filled by servants with cans of hot water. And even plumbed-in tubs are not a modern invention. I mean, the Romans had plumbed-in tubs, didn’t they?

    Hee hee. Sorry to get hung up on this, domestic history is one of my interests ;)

    Conga rats on your new blog! I look forward to reading you again.

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  18. Ed Darrell says:

    Kyle, the story I’ve read is that Taft, at a very portly 300 pounds, once got stuck in one of the bathtubs and had to be pried out. Great question, worthy of chasing down.

    Discordian, bathtubs were in common use among people with money by the end of the 18th century. According to the tour guide at the White House I asked, John Adams had the first bathtub in the White House, when it first opened, in 1802. Another great question, worthy of a better answer.

    Stay tuned.

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  19. So who did have the first bathtub installed in the White House?

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  20. kyle says:

    Isn’t there a story about Taft’s bathtub also? Something about his size requiring a new bigger one? Or did my history teacher make that one up?

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  21. [...] That’s the first paragraph of his first post on what the blog is about, and how he came up the name.  Its definitely a funny read, but its also an insightful look at a historical fact that is anything but fact.  His take on history is very refreshing. [...]

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  22. Mumon says:

    Thanks. Oddly enough it reminds me of Bob
    Dylan, for reasons I mention on my blog.

    Like

Play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes.

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