Remember when business leaders supported civil rights?

August 16, 2013

Remember civil discussion?

June 4, 1963:  Business leaders listening to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, with President John F. Kennedy, in the White House.  Photo from the Kennedy Library, public domain

June 4, 1963: Business leaders listening to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, with President John F. Kennedy, in the White House. Photo from the Kennedy Library, public domain

Could one get such a meeting on an issue today?  Probably — and wouldn’t it be nice to see more of them?

President John F. Kennedy invited top business leaders of the nation to the White House on June 4, 1963, to talk about civil rights.  This photo captures the early moments of the late afternoon meeting in the East Room of the White House, with Vice President Lyndon Johnson addressing the group, and President Kennedy waiting to speak.

According to the Kennedy Library, these are people in in the photo:

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (at podium, with back to camera) speaks to a group of business executives with establishments in southern cities, at a civil rights meeting conducted by President John F. Kennedy (seated at far right), Vice President Johnson, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (not pictured). Those pictured include: Milton L. Elsberg, President of Drug Fair Inc.; Carling L. Dinkler, Jr., President of Dinkler Hotel Corporation; Lucien E. Oliver, Vice President of Sears, Roebuck & Company; Louis C. Lustenberger, President of W. T. Grant Company; William B. Thalhimer, Jr., President of Thalhimer Brothers, Inc.; G. Stockton Strawbridge, President of Strawbridge & Clothier; Bruce A. Gimbel, President of Gimbel Brothers, Inc.; and E. D. Martin, President of Martin Theatres of Georgia, Inc. East Room, White House, Washington, D.C.

Few of those companies exist today; those that do are in much changed form.  Just fifty years ago.

The Kennedy Presidential Library in Massachusetts makes this photo available with hundreds of others at its on-line site.


A neglected 95th anniversary of Mencken and Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub – National Bathtub and Presidential Obscurity Day

December 28, 2012

A Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub December 28 tradition; mostly encore post, but worthy of note on National Bathtub and Presidential Obscurity Day

95 years ago today, on December 28, 1917, this column by H. L. Mencken was published in The New York Evening Mail:

Portrait of H. L. Mencken

1927 Portrait of H. L. Mencken by Nikol Schattenstein; Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore

A Neglected Anniversary

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.

True enough, it was not entirely forgotten. Eight or nine months ago one of the younger surgeons connected with the Public Health Service in Washington happened upon the facts while looking into the early history of public hygiene, and at his suggestion a committee was formed to celebrate the anniversary with a banquet. But before the plan was perfected Washington went dry (This was war-time Prohibition, preliminary to the main catastrophe. — HLM), and so the banquet had to be abandoned. As it was, the day passed wholly unmarked, even in the capital of the nation.

Bathtubs are so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. They are familiar to nearly everyone in all incorporated towns; in most of the large cities it is unlawful to build a dwelling house without putting them in; even on the farm they have begun to come into use. And yet the first American bathtub was installed and dedicated so recently as December 20, 1842, and, for all I know to the contrary, it may still be in existence and in use.

Curiously enough, the scene of its setting up was Cincinnati, then a squalid frontier town, and even today surely no leader in culture. But Cincinnati, in those days as in these, contained many enterprising merchants, and one of them was a man named Adam Thompson, a dealer in cotton and grain. Thompson shipped his grain by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, and from there sent it to England in sailing vessels. This trade frequently took him to England, and in that country, during the ’30s, he acquired the habit of bathing.

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, who was of inventive fancy — he later devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon — conceived the notion that the English bathtub would be much improved if it were made large enough to admit the whole body of an adult man, and if its supply of water, instead of being hauled to the scene by a maid, were admitted by pipes from a central reservoir and run off by the same means. Accordingly, early in 1842 he set about building the first modern bathroom in his Cincinnati home — a large house with Doric pillars, standing near what is now the corner of Monastery and Orleans streets.

There was then, of course, no city water supply, at least in that part of the city, but Thompson had a large well in his garden, and he installed a pump to lift its water to the house. This pump, which was operated by six Negroes, much like an old-time fire engine, was connected by a pipe with a cypress tank in the garret of the house, and here the water was stored until needed. From the tank two other pipes ran to the bathroom. One, carrying cold water, was a direct line. The other, designed to provide warm water, ran down the great chimney of the kitchen, and was coiled inside it like a giant spring.

The tub itself was of new design, and became the grandfather of all the bathtubs of today. Thompson had it made by James Cullness, the leading Cincinnati cabinetmaker of those days, and its material was Nicaragua mahogany. It was nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide. To make it water-tight, the interior was lined with sheet lead, carefully soldered at the joints. The whole contraption weighed about 1,750 pounds, and the floor of the room in which it was placed had to be reinforced to support it. The exterior was elaborately polished.

In this luxurious tub Thompson took two baths on December 20, 1842 — a cold one at 8 a.m. and a warm one some time during the afternoon. The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentlemen to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them and gave an exhibition of its use, and four of them, including a French visitor, Col. Duchanel, risked plunges into it. The next day all Cincinnati — then a town of about 100,000 people — had heard of it, and the local newspapers described it at length and opened their columns to violent discussions of it.

The thing, in fact, became a public matter, and before long there was bitter and double- headed opposition to the new invention, which had been promptly imitated by several other wealthy Cincinnatians. 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 noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy; indeed, the common price for installing one in New York in 1845 was $500. Thus the low caste politicians of the time made capital by fulminating against it, and there is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations. But the invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc, in 1847, cut off this line of attack, and thereafter the bathtub made steady progress.

The zinc tub was devised by John F. Simpson, a Brooklyn plumber, and his efforts to protect it by a patent occupied the courts until 1855. But the decisions were steadily against him, and after 1848 all the plumbers of New York were equipped for putting in bathtubs. According to a writer in the Christian Register for July 17, 1857, the first one in New York was opened for traffic on September 12, 1847, and by the beginning of 1850 there were already nearly 1,000 in use in the big town.

After this medical opposition began to collapse, and among other eminent physicians Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared for the bathtub, and vigorously opposed the lingering movement against it in Boston. The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849, and a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55 per cent of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more than 20 per cent advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting in 1850 a resolution was formally passed giving the imprimatur of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths followed with a like resolution in 1853.

But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that, even more than the grudging medical approval, gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States. While he was still Vice-President, in March, 1850, he visited Cincinnati on a stumping tour, and inspected the original Thompson tub. Thompson himself was now dead, but his bathroom was preserved by the gentlemen who had bought his house from the estate. Fillmore was entertained in this house and, according to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath in the tub. Experiencing no ill effects, he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.

This action, for a moment, revived the old controversy, and its opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello, and that all the Presidents and other magnificoes of the past had got along without any such monarchical luxuries. The elder Bennett, in the New York Herald, charged that Fillmore really aspired to buy and install in the White House a porphyry and alabaster bath that had been used by Louis Philippe at Versailles. But Conrad, disregarding all this clamor, duly called for bids, and the contract was presently awarded to Harper & Gillespie, a firm of Philadelphia engineers, who proposed to furnish a tub of thin cast iron, capable of floating the largest man.

This was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three. In 1862 bathing was introduced into the Army by Gen. McClellan, and in 1870 the first prison bathtub was set up at Moyamensing Prison, in Philadelphia.

So much for the history of the bathtub in America. 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.

(Text courtesy of Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k))

The entire history was a hoax composed by Mencken.

Even conservative wackoes appreciate the column.

Content with his private joke, Mencken remained silent about the hoax until a follow-up article, “Melancholy Reflections,” appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 23, 1926, some eight years later. This was Mencken’s confession. It was also an appeal for reason to the American public.

His hoax was a joke gone bad. “A Neglected Anniversary” had been printed and reprinted hundreds of times in the intervening years. Mencken had been receiving letters of corroboration from some readers and requests for more details from others. His history of the bathtub had been cited repeatedly by other writers and was starting to find its way into reference works. As Mencken noted in “Melancholy Reflections,” his “facts” “began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene.” And, because Fillmore’s presidency had been so uneventful, on the date of his birthday calendars often included the only interesting tidbit of information they could find: Fillmore had introduced the bathtub into the White House. (Even the later scholarly disclosure that Andrew Jackson had a bathtub installed there in 1834—years before Mencken claimed it was even invented—did not diminish America’s conviction that Fillmore was responsible.)

(No, dear reader, probably not correct; surely John Adams brought a bathtub with him when he moved into the White House, then called the President’s Mansion.  Plumbing, hot water, and finally hot water to a bathtub in the president’s residence, were installed between 1830 and 1853, as best I can determine.)

Mencken wrote an introduction to the piece in a later bookA Mencken Chrestomathy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1949):

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.

There’s a moral to the story:  Strive for accuracy!

So, Dear Reader, check for accuracy, and question authority.

Fact checks — what else might need to be corrected in this story?

Resources:

Finally, Dear Readers — have you noticed someone falling victim to the hoax of Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub recently?  Give us details in comments, please.


Friday Photo: Washington Monument from the top down

October 26, 2012

U.S. Department of Interior, on Instagram:

http://distilleryimage8.instagram.com/7ca1151c1eea11e2957722000a1f9a39_7.jpg

Interior’s Instagram caption: It’s not every day you see the #Washington #Monument from this angle. #dc #mall #bestofteday

For me, additional security in Washington, D.C., has stolen much of the fun, joy and awe of the Washington Monument — compounded by the damage from the 2011 Virginia earthquake.

Before September 2011, the Washington Monument was open until midnight in summer months.  Tourists head off for dinner and hotels at before 6:00 p.m. — the tourist lines disappear, and especially after 10:00 p.m. on most nights, one could, or one and the three or four visiting friends you had could, without waiting catch the elevator to the top for an absolutely matchless view of Washington D.C. at night.

Spy on the White House; spot the tourists dangling feet in the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial; see the light in the Capitol Dome indicating Congress in session, and gloat that you were in recreational mode instead.  See a couple kissing on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, thinking no one would see them.  Watch the arc of U.S. Airways airplanes coming down the Potomac River corridor, panicking anyone in the USA Today building who happened to look out and look down on an aircraft passing by, and almost hear the screams from the non-frequent DCA fliers as the plane banked sharply at low level to line up with the runway at National Airport (it will never be Reagan to true aviation buffs, who still miss the controllers who gave us confidence in that thrill ride).

For the Fourth of July, the National Park Service (NPS) used to conduct a lottery to select a tiny handful of professional photographers to shoot the fireworks, one of the best displays on Earth.  The fireworks shoot from near the Lincoln Memorial.  Does NPS do that any more?

Then walk down the stairway, past the hundreds of carved memorial stones, gifts of Americans who wished to honor George Washington by contributing some large, expensive rock to the interior of the obelisk rising Pharoah-style out of the swamp near the Tidal Basin.  Notice the color line shift that marked the Know-Nothing Party control of the group building the monument – the original American Tea Party austerity group, who stopped construction for 20 years just to prove they could impose austerity on those ‘spendthrifts’ who wished to build a monument to a man, even without any public money, and even though they controlled the commission only from 1855 to 1858 (the Civil War intervened).

The Washington Monument, all 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches of it, is closed now.  When I visited last, in June, damage from the earthquake was still being assessed, and to protect the monument and the public, no access to the interior was allowed.  Around the base, the 50 U.S. flags still fly 24 hours each day; but the paths to the monument now have blockades to stop any unauthorized truck, perhaps laden with explosives, and the public benches sat empty where we used to meet small-town Americans awed by the thing, and foreign tourists in awe of America.

The caption from Interior begs more explanation.  Why don’t we see this view?  The Washington Mall — that expanse of grass and, now, museums between the U.S. Capitol on the east end and the Potomac-side Lincoln Memorial on the west — graces pilots’ air charts as a civilian no-fly zone.  After too many small-plane pilots gave the FAA fits, and somebody parked one on the lawn of the White House, FAA banned all flights over the mall, except by police or other official aircraft.  Pragmatically it’s the D.C. cops and Marine One helicopters who might be able to capture this view.

How did Interior get the shot?  The Instagram doesn’t explain. Perhaps it was part of the work to repair and restore the monument from the earthquake.

This picture highlights some interesting things. You can see wear and discoloration of the stone, from weather.  Discoloration is not consistent; you can see how the windows at the top alter the even flow of water.  Acid rain causes the stone to turn gray, then black; the monument is light only from a couple of scrubbings (though, contrary to climate denialist and GOP claims, Clean Air Act control of acid rain reduces the damage since 1972).  Some of the discoloration may be from copper solutions washed off the window frames by the rain.

If you look closely, you can see one of the cracks caused by the earthquake.  At the peak rests a tiny pyramid of aluminum, undistinguishable from the limestone.  Aluminum?  Yes — while the metal is a very common element around the Earth, refining it out of ore was difficult, commercially impossible in the 1880s when the Monument was completed.  As a last tribute to Washington, builders capped it with what was then one of the most precious metals on Earth, aluminum.  Soon after, the advent of mass quantities of generated electricity made aluminum refining commercially viable; today we make disposable drink cans out of what was once the most precious metal on Earth, when purified.  One may ponder how George Washington would consider such technological changes in the nation where he hoped every citizen might have a “vine and fig tree,” first to cap his monument with aluminum, and then make millions of tons of the stuff to throw away.  We are an industrial society to an extent Washington did not, perhaps could not anticipate.  Would he approve?

About a quarter of the way up from the base, you see the color of the limestone changed, as I noted earlier.  All the stone on the face of the monument came from the same quarry; however, during the cessation of construction during the rule of the Know Nothings on the monument commission, rock from the quarry continued to come out, to be used in other projects.  By the time construction on the monument was restarted, rock quarrying pulled out limestone of a slightly darker, more reddish color.  Builders decided to continue with the color variation rather than pull down the stone already stacked.  The Washington monument thus becomes a memorial not only to Washington, but also to the politics he futilely hoped would not affect our nation’s government, even non-governmental commissions working around and about the government.  That color line preserves in stone some of the political errors of the mid-19th century.  It remains unclear whether anyone ever learned a beneficial lesson from those times.

At the base you see patterns of stone unrecognized at ground level (are those white stripes the benches to wait in line to get up to the top?).  Around the monument a phalanx of 50 U.S. flags, which fly constantly (except in hurricanes), and you can see the lights that illuminate the flags and the monument at night.  Flying into Washington, D.C., at night, becomes one of the great vistas of the world, pierced by the shining white spire of the Washington Monument against a black sky (or dark blue, better), and the panorama of great public buildings, also lighted limestone.

Under local and federal zoning rules, skyscrapers are not allowed in that core area, to preserve the buena vista.

And finally, in the photo you can see fewer than a dozen people, colored dots at the base of the structure.  Are they looking up?

More:


“White House hates Christmas” hoax season opens

November 26, 2011

Christmas gets underway at the White House, with a special guest appearance by Bo, the dog:

One long-standing American Christmas tradition is the Christmas hoax about the president.  Probably the most famous, if not the first, was H. L. Mencken’s column in December 1917, in which he claimed Millard Fillmore a failure as president, whose only achievement was putting the first bathtub in the Executive Mansion — all of it make up, whole cloth fiction.

Since the election of Barack Obama we’ve seen claims that Obama had banned Christmas trees, claims that Obama required only Marxist and communist ornaments, and other wild stories that only a fool, a victim of lobotomy, a Bill O’Reilly fan or Michelle Bachmann would believe after the second cup of coffee in the morning.

What will the hoax claims be this year?  ABC posted this raw footage of the delivery of the Christmas tree, but that alone will not inoculate us from a Yule-tide hoax.

What atrocious inventions will the Obama-haters send our way this year?  If it’s a claim that there’s no tree, you know better already.  You’ve seen the video.

More:


Pinewood Derby, Scouting and the West Wing

May 14, 2010

What if you were a Cub Scout, hoping to win your Pack’s Pinewood Derby, but your father worked at the White House?  Does the White House support Scouting?

Robert Gibbs at White House press briefing, February 12, 2010

Robert Gibbs at White House press briefing, February 12, 2010 - White House photo

Transcript of White House press briefing from February 12, 2010:

Q    As the honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America, what is the President’s reaction to the New York Post report that because the Scouts have a policy similar to our armed forces, “New York institutions are barring scouts from meeting or recruiting in all public schools”?

MR. GIBBS:  I have not seen the New York Post report and can have somebody –

Q    Well, does he think that it’s fair for them to cut the Scouts out of this?  How does he support — does he disagree with the Scouts or what?  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Where are you on this, Lester?  Are you — is this –

Q    Nowhere.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I do know where.

Q    I support the Scouts.  Do you support the Scouts?

MR. GIBBS:  My son is — we’re constructing the pinewood derby car as we speak.  (Laughter.)

Q    He’s a Scout, your son is a Scout?

MR. GIBBS:  He is, and I think he’s going to be disappointed if his car doesn’t do well, but his father tends to be constructionally challenged.

Thanks, guys.

END
1:52 P.M. EST


A neglected, “Neglected Anniversary” – Mencken, Fillmore and the bathtub

December 29, 2009

Otherwise occupied, I nearly forgot:  92 years ago yesterday, on December 28, 1917, this column by H. L. Mencken was published in The New York Evening Mail:

A Neglected Anniversary

Mencken on April 7, 1933 - end of low-alcohol beer - Baltimore Sun Photo

H. L. Mencken at approximately 12:30 a.m., April 7, 1933, at the Rennert Hotel, corner of Saratoga and Liberty Streets, 17 years later, not neglecting a sudsy anniversary - Baltimore Sun photo

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.

True enough, it was not entirely forgotten. Eight or nine months ago one of the younger surgeons connected with the Public Health Service in Washington happened upon the facts while looking into the early history of public hygiene, and at his suggestion a committee was formed to celebrate the anniversary with a banquet. But before the plan was perfected Washington went dry (This was war-time Prohibition, preliminary to the main catastrophe. — HLM), and so the banquet had to be abandoned. As it was, the day passed wholly unmarked, even in the capital of the nation.

Bathtubs are so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them. They are familiar to nearly everyone in all incorporated towns; in most of the large cities it is unlawful to build a dwelling house without putting them in; even on the farm they have begun to come into use. And yet the first American bathtub was installed and dedicated so recently as December 20, 1842, and, for all I know to the contrary, it may still be in existence and in use.

Curiously enough, the scene of its setting up was Cincinnati, then a squalid frontier town, and even today surely no leader in culture. But Cincinnati, in those days as in these, contained many enterprising merchants, and one of them was a man named Adam Thompson, a dealer in cotton and grain. Thompson shipped his grain by steamboat down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, and from there sent it to England in sailing vessels. This trade frequently took him to England, and in that country, during the ’30s, he acquired the habit of bathing.

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, who was of inventive fancy — he later devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon — conceived the notion that the English bathtub would be much improved if it were made large enough to admit the whole body of an adult man, and if its supply of water, instead of being hauled to the scene by a maid, were admitted by pipes from a central reservoir and run off by the same means. Accordingly, early in 1842 he set about building the first modern bathroom in his Cincinnati home — a large house with Doric pillars, standing near what is now the corner of Monastery and Orleans streets.

There was then, of course, no city water supply, at least in that part of the city, but Thompson had a large well in his garden, and he installed a pump to lift its water to the house. This pump, which was operated by six Negroes, much like an old-time fire engine, was connected by a pipe with a cypress tank in the garret of the house, and here the water was stored until needed. From the tank two other pipes ran to the bathroom. One, carrying cold water, was a direct line. The other, designed to provide warm water, ran down the great chimney of the kitchen, and was coiled inside it like a giant spring.

The tub itself was of new design, and became the grandfather of all the bathtubs of today. Thompson had it made by James Cullness, the leading Cincinnati cabinetmaker of those days, and its material was Nicaragua mahogany. It was nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide. To make it water-tight, the interior was lined with sheet lead, carefully soldered at the joints. The whole contraption weighed about 1,750 pounds, and the floor of the room in which it was placed had to be reinforced to support it. The exterior was elaborately polished.

In this luxurious tub Thompson took two baths on December 20, 1842 — a cold one at 8 a.m. and a warm one some time during the afternoon. The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentlemen to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them and gave an exhibition of its use, and four of them, including a French visitor, Col. Duchanel, risked plunges into it. The next day all Cincinnati — then a town of about 100,000 people — had heard of it, and the local newspapers described it at length and opened their columns to violent discussions of it.

The thing, in fact, became a public matter, and before long there was bitter and double- headed opposition to the new invention, which had been promptly imitated by several other wealthy Cincinnatians. 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 noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy; indeed, the common price for installing one in New York in 1845 was $500. Thus the low caste politicians of the time made capital by fulminating against it, and there is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations. But the invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc, in 1847, cut off this line of attack, and thereafter the bathtub made steady progress.

The zinc tub was devised by John F. Simpson, a Brooklyn plumber, and his efforts to protect it by a patent occupied the courts until 1855. But the decisions were steadily against him, and after 1848 all the plumbers of New York were equipped for putting in bathtubs. According to a writer in the Christian Register for July 17, 1857, the first one in New York was opened for traffic on September 12, 1847, and by the beginning of 1850 there were already nearly 1,000 in use in the big town.

After this medical opposition began to collapse, and among other eminent physicians Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared for the bathtub, and vigorously opposed the lingering movement against it in Boston. The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849, and a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55 per cent of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more than 20 per cent advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting in 1850 a resolution was formally passed giving the imprimatur of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths followed with a like resolution in 1853.

But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that, even more than the grudging medical approval, gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States. While he was still Vice-President, in March, 1850, he visited Cincinnati on a stumping tour, and inspected the original Thompson tub. Thompson himself was now dead, but his bathroom was preserved by the gentlemen who had bought his house from the estate. Fillmore was entertained in this house and, according to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath in the tub. Experiencing no ill effects, he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.

This action, for a moment, revived the old controversy, and its opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello, and that all the Presidents and other magnificoes of the past had got along without any such monarchical luxuries. The elder Bennett, in the New York Herald, charged that Fillmore really aspired to buy and install in the White House a porphyry and alabaster bath that had been used by Louis Philippe at Versailles. But Conrad, disregarding all this clamor, duly called for bids, and the contract was presently awarded to Harper & Gillespie, a firm of Philadelphia engineers, who proposed to furnish a tub of thin cast iron, capable of floating the largest man.

This was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three. In 1862 bathing was introduced into the Army by Gen. McClellan, and in 1870 the first prison bathtub was set up at Moyamensing Prison, in Philadelphia.

So much for the history of the bathtub in America. 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.

(Text courtesy of Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k))

The entire history was a hoax composed by Mencken.

Even conservative wackoes appreciate the column.

Content with his private joke, Mencken remained silent about the hoax until a follow-up article, “Melancholy Reflections,” appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 23, 1926, some eight years later. This was Mencken’s confession. It was also an appeal for reason to the American public.

His hoax was a joke gone bad. “A Neglected Anniversary” had been printed and reprinted hundreds of times in the intervening years. Mencken had been receiving letters of corroboration from some readers and requests for more details from others. His history of the bathtub had been cited repeatedly by other writers and was starting to find its way into reference works. As Mencken noted in “Melancholy Reflections,” his “facts” “began to be used by chiropractors and other such quacks as evidence of the stupidity of medical men. They began to be cited by medical men as proof of the progress of public hygiene.” And, because Fillmore’s presidency had been so uneventful, on the date of his birthday calendars often included the only interesting tidbit of information they could find: Fillmore had introduced the bathtub into the White House. (Even the later scholarly disclosure that Andrew Jackson had a bathtub installed there in 1834—years before Mencken claimed it was even invented—did not diminish America’s conviction that Fillmore was responsible.)

(No, dear reader, probably not correct; surely John Adams brought a bathtub with him when he moved into the White House, then called the President’s Mansion.  Plumbing, hot water, and finally hot water to a bathtub in the president’s residence, were installed between 1830 and 1853, as best I can determine.)

Mencken wrote an introduction to the piece in a later bookA Mencken Chrestomathy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1949):

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.

There’s a moral to the story:  Strive for accuracy!

So, Dear Reader, check for accuracy, and question authority.

Resources:

Warn others of the hoax!

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Fireworks in Washington, D.C.

July 6, 2009

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama watch the fireworks over the National Mall from the White House on July 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama watch the fireworks over the National Mall from the White House on July 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza) (White House caption)

July 4 in Washington was always a lot of fun, and I always found myself without the right film or the right lens, or knowledge about how to make the exposure work.  Several times I tried to get good shots of the fireworks from the Capitol lawn — no success.  Once we walked the Mall and sat under the fireworks going off, near the Lincoln Memorial (Kathryn won’t let me forget that one).  Bad angle for photos, and for viewing.  Once I tried from the Virginia side of the Potomac.  Not a single good shot.

One of the great joys of electronic photography is getting more of these kinds of shots.

Still, this photograph shows great skill on Souza’s part — lens selection, exposure, and composition come together just right.

Some restrictions apply to use of this photograph.  See notes here.


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