May 23, 1926: Mencken confessed the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoax, “any facts . . . got there accidentally”

May 23, 2013

Reasons for my annual observance of a moment of silence, here on May 23, for the failed confession of Mr. Mencken should be obvious to even a sleepy reader.  Alas, annually the need grows to call attention to the dangers of hoaxing, as hoaxes particularly in the political life of the U.S. grow in number, in viciousness, and in the numbers of gullibles suckered.  Here, again, is our annual reading of the confession with a few photographs and new links thrown in for easy learning:

May 23, 1926, H. L. Mencken‘s newspaper column confessed his hoax of nine years earlier — he had made up whole cloth the story of Millard Fillmore‘s only accomplishment being the installation of a plumbed bathtub in the White House (in the 1850s known as the Executive Mansion).

Alas, the hoax cat was out of the bag, and the hoax information still pollutes the pool of history today.

Text of the confession, from the Museum of Hoaxes:

Melancholy Reflections

On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious…

This article, as I say, 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!

But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They 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. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, 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.

* * *

And as rare. This is the first time, indeed, that they have ever been questioned, and I confess at once that even I myself, their author, feel a certain hesitancy about doing it. Once more, I suppose, I’ll be accused of taking the wrong side for the mere pleasure of standing in opposition. The Cincinnati boomers, who have made much of the boast that the bathtub industry, now running to $200,000,000 a year, was started in their town, will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will now denounce me as a quack for exposing them. And in the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have once more committed some vague and sinister crime against the United States, and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia.

I recite this history, not because it is singular, but because it is typical. It is out of just such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess — or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie — ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik.

So with all other wars. For example, the revolution. For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils. The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.

* * *

As a practicing journalist for many years, I have often had close contact with history in the making. I can recall no time or place when what actually occurred was afterward generally known and believed. Sometimes a part of the truth got out, but never all. And what actually got out was seldom clearly understood. Consider, for example, the legends that follow every national convention. A thousand newspaper correspondents are on the scene, all of them theoretically competent to see accurately and report honestly, but it is seldom that two of them agree perfectly, and after a month after the convention adjourns the accepted version of what occurred usually differs from the accounts of all of them.

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attor...

Political boss Harry M. Daugherty (later Attorney General of the United States), left, with Senator Warren G. Harding (later President of the United States) at Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio during the 1920 presidential campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I point to the Republican convention of 1920, which nominated the eminent and lamented Harding. A week after the delegates adjourned the whole country believed that Harding had been put through by Col. George Harvey: Harvey himself admitted it. Then other claimants to the honor arose, and after a year or two it was generally held that the trick had been turned by the distinguished Harry M. Daugherty, by that time a salient light of the Harding cabinet. The story began to acquire corroborative detail. Delegates and correspondents began to remember things that they had not noticed on the spot. What the orthodox tale is today with Daugherty in eclipse, I don’t know, but you may be sure that it is full of mysterious intrigue and bold adventure.

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U....

Ambassador Myron T. Herrick was part of the U.S. delegation to the International Chamber of Commerce which sailed on Kroonland in 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the facts? The facts are that Harvey had little more to do with the nomination of Harding than I did, and that Daugherty was immensely surprised when good Warren won. The nomination was really due to the intense heat, and to that alone. The delegates, torn by the savage three cornered fight between Lowden, Johnson, and Wood, came to Saturday morning in despair. The temperature in the convention hall was at least 120 degrees. They were eager to get home. When it became apparent that the leaders could not break the deadlock they ran amuck and nominated Harding, as the one aspirant who had no enemies. If any individual managed the business it was not Harvey or Daugherty, but Myron T. Herrick. But so far as I know Herrick’s hand in it has never been mentioned.

* * *

English: Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier i...

Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in arena before fight at Boyle’s Thirty Acres. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I turn to a more pleasant field — that of sport in the grand manner. On July 2, 1921, in the great bowl at Jersey City, the Hon. Jack Dempsey met M. Carpentier, the gallant frog. The sympathy of the crowd was overwhelmingly with M. Carpentier and every time he struck a blow he got a round of applause, even if it didn’t land. I had an excellent seat, very near the ring, and saw every move of the two men. From the first moment Dr. Dempsey had it all his own way. He could have knocked out M. Carpentier in the first half of the first round. After that first half he simply waited his chance to do it politely and humanely.

Yet certain great newspapers reported the next morning that M. Carpentier had delivered an appalling wallop in the second round and that Dr. Dempsey had narrowly escaped going out. Others told the truth, but what chance had the truth against that romantic lie? It is believed in to this day by at least 99.99 per cent of all the boxing fans in Christendom. Carpentier himself, when he recovered from his beating, admitted categorically that it was nonsense, but even Carpentier could make no headway against the almost universal human tendency to cherish what is not true. A thousand years hence schoolboys will be taught that the frog had Dempsey going. It may become in time a religious dogma, like the doctrine that Jonah swallowed the whale. Scoffers who doubt it will be damned to hell.

The moral, if any, I leave to psycho-pathologists, if competent ones can be found. All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe. If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.

Mencken’s confession gets much less attention than it deserves.  In a just world, this essay would be part of every AP U.S. history text, and would be available for printing for students to read individually in class and to discuss, debate and ponder.  Quite to the contrary, state legislatures today debate whether to require teaching of the hoax that disastrous climate change is not occurring, only 45% of Americans claim to know better for certain; more legislatures work hard to devise ways to insert hoaxes against biology (evolution and human reproduction, notably), astronomy and physics (Big Bang), history and even education (Islam is a root of socialist thought, President Obama is not Christian, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, teachers are socialists).

In 2013, the governing body of the Boy Scouts of America votes today on whether to allow homosexual boys to be Scouts — as if an 8-year-old kid joining Cub Scouts knows enough about sex and love, and sex predation, to threaten the Constitution of the U.S. if we allow him to learn how to put alphabet macaroni onto a board spelling out “Mom,” or to learn how to carve an automobile out of a block of wood and race it on a closed-course track.  The so-called Family Research Council (FRC) has conducted a campaign of vicious hoaxes against the measure, even going so far as to purloin official logos of the Boy Scouts to suggest they speak for BSA.  The hoax has millions of victims, they claim.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., GOP Members of Congress call for investigations into wrongdoing evidenced in e-mails between the White House and State Department and CIA, over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.  To hear the GOP describe it, you’d never know that the GOP opposed President Obama’s actions to save the city of Benghazi from destruction by dictator Muammar Gadhafy a few months before, that the GOP slashed the security budget for all U.S. diplomatic missions, leaving Ambassador Stevens underprotected, that the GOP was opposed to much of the work of Ambassador Stevens, or that the incriminating e-mails were hoaxed up by GOP Congressional staff.

If you see pale faces among the GOP Congressional staff or the FRC this morning, it may be because the ghost of H. L. Mencken appeared to them last night to give them hell.  We could hope.

More:


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.


Millard Fillmore: Victim of yet another hoax

December 6, 2012

The Washington Post’s usually great blog on politics, The Fix, features a list of the best presidential biographies.  This comes just in time for the holidays, of course.  It could be a guide to getting the book for that wonk you know, the one who says Franklin Pierce is underrated, or the woman you know who is fixated on what might have been had Warren G. Harding not died in San Francisco.

The list links to good versions of obscure and arcane history, as well as some major stuff — any good biography of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt, has to have some major chops going for it, in those crowded niches of good biographies of important people.

English: 1938 u.s. postage stamp of Millard Fi...

1938 U.S. postage stamp of Millard Fillmore, a 13-cent stamp for our 13th president – Wikipedia image

Then there is poor old, hapless Millard Fillmore.

We can excuse Natalie Jennings and Sean Sullivan, perhaps.  After all, there are not many books on Millard Fillmore.  Pickings are slim.

Ever since America’s favorite curmudgeon, H. L. Mencken, created a World War I hoax on the gullibility of the public, with a completely invented history that claimed the only thing of note ever done by Millard Fillmore was putting a bathtub in the White House, against the advice of the American Medical Association, poor Fillmore has been the butt of jokes, but more often the cruel butt of unintended slights when people cite the fictions of his life rather than his accomplishments.  We approach the anniversary of the Mencken “Fillmore’s Bathtub” Hoax, on December 28.

I said the pickings on Fillmore books were slim.  The list at The Fix  includes a parody history of some five years back by George Pendle, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President.

At Amazon, we learn of Pendle’s book:

Millard Fillmore has been mocked, maligned, or, most cruelly of all, ignored by generations of historians–but no more! This unbelievable new biography finally rescues the unlucky thirteenth U.S. president from the dustbin of history and shows why a man known as a blundering, arrogant, shallow, miserable failure was really our greatest leader.

In the first fully researched portrait of Fillmore ever written, the reader can finally come face-to-face with a misunderstood genius. By meticulously extrapolating outrageous conclusions from the most banal and inconclusive of facts, The Remarkable Millard Fillmore reveals the adventures of an unjustly forgotten president. He fought at the Battle of the Alamo! He shepherded slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad! He discovered gold in California! He wrestled with the emperor of Japan! It is a list of achievements that puts those of Washington and Lincoln completely in the shade.

Refusing to be held back by established history or recorded fact, here George Pendle paints an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary man and restores the sparkle to an unfairly tarnished reputation.

Of course it’s parody!  There’s no indication Fillmore, never a member of the military, fought at the Alamo.  Fillmore never made it to California, nor was he the Mormon who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill.  In one of his greatest acts, Fillmore dispatched Commodore Perry to Japan to coerce that nation to open its doors to American sailing ships, and trade with the rest of the world.  Fillmore himself did not journey to Japan, and never met the Japanese emperor, let alone wrestled the man. (After his presidency, Fillmore visited Europe; Queen Victoria is attributed with having said he was one of the handsomest men she’d ever met; he refused an honorary degree because, he said, he couldn’t read the Latin it was written in — you can’t make up the real stuff.)

Despite its clearly being a parody, however, there it is on the list of The Fix, as the best biography of Millard Fillmore.

Fillmore parody history listed as best Fillmore biography

Screen clip showing parody Fillmore biography on The Fix’s list of best presidential biographies

H. L. Mencken lifts a beer to toast end of Prohibition

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

The Ghost of H. L. Mencken notes that this item appeared on December 5, 2012, the anniversary of the end of Prohibition — and knocks back a brew.  Every other president gets a serious biography mentioned; for Millard Fillmore, The Fix lists a hoax book as his “best presidential biography.”

More:

A note on fairness to Mr. Pendle:  Pendle has argued here before that his book does contain real history, and it’s there despite the embellishments which he says at least get the book sold.  Earlier, in comments he said:

Dear Sir,

I am the author of the recently published ‘The Remarkable Millard Fillmore’, which I have just discovered has been mentioned by your website on a couple of occasions. Judging by your website’s wonderful name, and your obvious interest in making people more aware of American history, I was slightly troubled to see that you thought I treated Millard Fillmore unfairly in my book.

I don’t know if you have had a chance to read ‘TRMF’ yet, but I can assure you that while it is a faux-biography, and does indeed poke fun at Millard Fillmore’s perceived image (or lack of it), its larger target is that of presidential biographies that are unthinkingly reverential of the office of the president. The cynical revision of history, in which one man is placed at the center of the world’s events is a historical fallacy, as you are probably well aware. Yet it is one which – unlike my book – many historians perpetrate with a straight face.

In ‘TRMF’ I attempted to mock this school of biography by extrapolating the most ridiculous situations from the most basic and inconclusive of historical facts. For instance, I have Millard Fillmore stowing away to Japan, and Sumo-wrestling with the Mikado’s champion, because in real life Fillmore opened up Japan to western trade (albeit from a safe distance in Washington D.C.).

Lest you think I am playing too fast and loose with the truth (some readers have complained that they did not realize my book was a spoof, despite the picture of Millard Fillmore riding a unicorn on its cover!) my book also includes a large appendix of strange but true historical notes to show that many of the ridiculous situations I place Fillmore in were actually based on fact. By reading them I hope one can discover that even the most staid of human lives can be touched by the fantastic.

In short I come not to bury Fillmore, but to praise him, and all those forgottens who have not been granted a role as a ‘Great Man of History’ by the Academy. I very much hope that although ‘The Remarkable Millard Fillmore’ is primarily a spoof and designed to make people giggle, readers will, possibly without being aware of it, come away from the book with a better knowledge of American History than when they started it.

Yours sincerely,
George Pendle

So we are left with a little mystery.  Did the WaPo reporters know that Pendle’s book is a parody, and are they saying it works wonderfully as a tool of history telling?  Or, did they not know?

_____________

Update:  Comes word this morning that The Fix changed its listing for Fillmore, to the Rayback book (Thanks, Lea).  The column says only that it’s been “updated,” but doesn’t explain where or why.   Mr. Pendle might argue his book should be there:  How many books are there on Fillmore after all?


Happy birthday, H. L. Mencken (a day late)

September 13, 2012

 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, September 12, 1880:  Henry Louis Mencken.

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942.  Photo from the Library of Congress collection

H. L. Mencken at his piano, 1942. Photo from the Library of Congress, via Gibbons

Mencken is the guy who invented the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoaxSo here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, we owe a birthday greeting to the guy, no?

As a quintessential curmudgeon, Mencken took a cynical pose on many issues.  Why?  His creed explains:

Mencken’s Creed

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty. . .
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech. . .
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I — but the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

The Mencken Society plans an event commemorating his birthday.  David Donovan will speak on “H.L. Mencken and the Saturday Night Club” on Saturday, September 29, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. at the the Pratt Library’s Southeast Anchor Library, 3601 Eastern Avenue (S Conkling St), Baltimore, MD 21224.  Donovan is a librarian and musicologist from the Pratt Library; the Saturday Night Club was a group of musicians with whom Mencken played piano.

It would be a great day to be in Baltimore.

I wonder what Mencken would have made of Kennedy’s speech in 1962 about going to the Moon.

More:

 


Encore typewriter of the moment: Mencken and the 1948 conventions

September 4, 2012


Mencken at 1948 Democratic Convention

Mencken at 1948 Democratic Convention

Photo from the collection of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, at the Park Library, University of North Carolina.

H. L. Mencken at one of the 1948 political conventions (Thomas Dewey was the Republican nominee, Harry S. Truman was the Democratic nominee). Obviously the photo is a copy from the National Press Club Library. The Park Library site describes the photo and Mencken:

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was a familiar figure at many national political conventions. This photo, taken at the one in 1948, was his last political convention. He is well known for his attacks on American taste and culture, or the lack of same. His magnum opus, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, was first published in 1919 and remains a classic. From 1906 to 1941, he worked chiefly as a reporter, editor, and columnist for the Baltimore Sun. (Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun Library.)

Assuming Mencken covered both conventions, this photo was taken at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in mid-July, 1948. We know it was taken in Philadelphia since both parties held their conventions there that year, the Republicans from June 21 to June 26, and the Democrats from July 12 to July 14.

Republicans nominated New York Gov. Thomas J. Dewey and California Gov. Earl Warren for president and vice president.

After a contentious convention that saw Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey propose a civil rights plank that got South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond to walk out of the convention and found his own States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party (with himself as the nominee for president), and former Vice President Henry Wallace walk out because the party platform was too conservative (Wallace ran on the Socialist Progressive Party ticket), Democrats nominated President Harry S Truman and Kentucky Sen. Alben W. Barkley for president and vice president. Truman narrowly defeated Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell for the nomination. Had Thurmond not walked out, Truman may well have lost the nomination of his own party.

And the rest of the story?

Estes Kefauver on the cover of Time, with a coonskin cap

Sen. Estes Kefauver

  • Truman had a contentious second term, and was defeated in the New Hampshire primary in 1952 by Sen. Estes Kefauver; Truman ended his campaign for a second full term shortly after.
  • Earl Warren was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Truman’s successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in late 1953. Warren is remembered for engineering the 9-0 decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Educationwhich ruled “separate but equal” school systems to violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and for his chairing the commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

    Earl Warren on cover of Life Magazine

    Earl Warren on the cover of Life Magazine, May 10, 1948; copyright Time-Life

  • Hubert Humphrey moved on to the U.S. Senate, served as Vice President to Lyndon Johnson, and won the Democratic nomination for president in another contentious convention in 1968 in Chicago. Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, and returned to the U.S. Senate two years later.
  • Strom Thurmond won election to the U.S. Senate in 1954, switching parties to Republican in 1964, and serving until his death in 2003.
  • Russell, who had served as Georgia’s senator since 1933, continued to serve to his death on January 21, 1971; he was a key member of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Russell Senate Office Building is named in his honor, the oldest of the three Senate office buildings.
  • Barkley was the oldest vice president ever inaugurated, aged 71. He remarried in his first year as vice president (his first wife died in 1947). Barkley’s nephew suggested that he should be called “the veep” because “Mr. Vice President” was too long. The title was seized up on by headline writers. Considered too old to run for the presidency in 1952, Barkley won a U.S. Senate seat from Kentucky in the 1954 elections, serving from 1955 to his death in 1956. Barkley Dam on the Cumberland River is named in his honor, as is the lake behind it, Lake Barkley.
  • Henry Wallace finished a distant fourth in the 1948 election, behind Dewey and Thurmond. His political career was essentially over due to his inability or unwillingness to disavow communist support. He achieved success as a chicken breeder. In a daramatic turnabout, he wrote a book, Where I Was Wrong, disavowing communism and critical of Joseph Stalin, and endorsed Republican candidates in 1956 and 1960. He died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1965.
  • Dewey returned to his law practice. In 1952, Dewey helped engineer the nomination of Eisenhower over his old political nemesis Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, pushed Richard Nixon as the Vice Presidential nominee, and in 1956 first convinced Ike to run again, and then to keep Nixon on the ticket. Dewey politely refused offers of offices, including refusing a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, sticking to his law practice which made him very wealthy. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1971, at age 68.
  • Mencken suffered a stroke later in 1948 that left him unable to speak, or read, or write for a time. He spent much of the rest of his life working to organize his papers, and died in 1956. His epitaph, on his tombstone and on a plaque in the lobby of the Baltimore Sun, reads: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl.”

This is an encore post.  Some new links have been added — though, as you can see, I don’t yet have a better photo of Mencken at the conventions.  More news sources, below.

More, Other Sources:


Millard Fillmore at 212 – boiling mad?

January 7, 2012

Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800. Had he lived, Millard Fillmore would be 212 years old today, very cranky, and looking for a good book to read.  Had each year been a degree Fahrenheit, he’d be boiling!

Millard Fillmore clipart from University of South Florida

Millard Fillmore clipart from University of South Florida - Free! Click image to go to USF site.

Would you blame him for being cranky? He opened Japan to trade. He got from Mexico the land necessary to make Los Angeles a great world city and the Southern Pacific a great railroad, without firing a shot. Fillmore promoted economic development of the Mississippi River. He managed to keep a fractious nation together despite itself for another three years. Fillmore let end the practice of presidents using slaves to staff the White House, then called “the President’s Mansion,” eight years before the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Then in 1852 his own party refused to nominate him for a full term, making him the last Whig to be president. And to add insult to ignominy, H. L. Mencken falsely accused him of being known only for adding a bathtub to the White House, something he didn’t do.

As Antony said of Caesar, the good was interred with his bones — but Millard Fillmore doesn’t even get credit for whatever evil he might have done: Fillmore is remembered most for being the butt of a hoax gone awry, committed years after his death. Or worse, he’s misremembered for what the hoax alleged he did.

Even beneficiaries of his help promoting the Mississippi River have taken his name off their annual celebration of the event. Fillmore has been eclipsed, even in mediocrity (is there still a Millard Fillmore Society in Washington?).

Happy birthday, Millard Fillmore.

Millard Fillmore, free clipart from University of South Florida

Millard Fillmore, free clipart from University of South Florida

Millard Fillmore was a man of great civic spirit, a man who answered the call to serve even when most others couldn’t hear it at all. He was a successful lawyer, despite having had only six months of formal education (a tribute to non-high school graduates and lifelong learning). Unable to save the Union, he established the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. During the Civil War, he led the local militia in support of the war effort, many rungs down from his role of Commander-in-Chief. And, it is said of him that Queen Victoria said he was the most handsome man she had ever met.

A guy like that deserves a toast, don’t you think?

Resources:


May 23, 1926: Mencken confessed the Millard Fillmore bathtub hoax

May 23, 2011

May 23, 1926, H. L. Mencken’s newspaper column confessed his hoax of nine years earlier — he had made up whole cloth the story of Millard Fillmore’s only accomplishment being the installation of a plumbed bathtub in the White House (in the 1850s known as the Executive Mansion).

Alas, the hoax cat was out of the bag, and the hoax information still pollutes the pool of history today.

Text of the confession, from the Museum of Hoaxes:

Melancholy Reflections

On Dec. 28, 1917, I printed in the New York Evening Mail, a paper now extinct, an article purporting to give the history of the bathtub. This article, I may say at once, was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious…

This article, as I say, 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!

But the worst was to come. Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men. They 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. They got into learned journals. They were alluded to on the floor of congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed solemnly in England and on the continent. Finally, 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.

* * *

And as rare. This is the first time, indeed, that they have ever been questioned, and I confess at once that even I myself, their author, feel a certain hesitancy about doing it. Once more, I suppose, I’ll be accused of taking the wrong side for the mere pleasure of standing in opposition. The Cincinnati boomers, who have made much of the boast that the bathtub industry, now running to $200,000,000 a year, was started in their town, will charge me with spreading lies against them. The chiropractors will damn me for blowing up their ammunition. The medical gents, having swallowed my quackery, will now denounce me as a quack for exposing them. And in the end, no doubt, the thing will simmer down to a general feeling that I have once more committed some vague and sinister crime against the United States, and there will be a renewal of the demand that I be deported to Russia.

I recite this history, not because it is singular, but because it is typical. It is out of just such frauds, I believe, that most of the so-called knowledge of humanity flows. What begins as a guess — or, perhaps, not infrequently, as a downright and deliberate lie — ends as a fact and is embalmed in the history books. One recalls the gaudy days of 1914-1918. How much that was then devoured by the newspaper readers of the world was actually true? Probably not 1 per cent. Ever since the war ended learned and laborious men have been at work examining and exposing its fictions. But every one of these fictions retains full faith and credit today. To question even the most palpably absurd of them, in most parts of the United States, is to invite denunciation as a bolshevik.

So with all other wars. For example, the revolution. For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils. The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.

* * *

As a practicing journalist for many years, I have often had close contact with history in the making. I can recall no time or place when what actually occurred was afterward generally known and believed. Sometimes a part of the truth got out, but never all. And what actually got out was seldom clearly understood. Consider, for example, the legends that follow every national convention. A thousand newspaper correspondents are on the scene, all of them theoretically competent to see accurately and report honestly, but it is seldom that two of them agree perfectly, and after a month after the convention adjourns the accepted version of what occurred usually differs from the accounts of all of them.

I point to the Republican convention of 1920, which nominated the eminent and lamented Harding. A week after the delegates adjourned the whole country believed that Harding had been put through by Col. George Harvey: Harvey himself admitted it. Then other claimants to the honor arose, and after a year or two it was generally held that the trick had been turned by the distinguished Harry M. Daugherty, by that time a salient light of the Harding cabinet. The story began to acquire corroborative detail. Delegates and correspondents began to remember things that they had not noticed on the spot. What the orthodox tale is today with Daugherty in eclipse, I don’t know, but you may be sure that it is full of mysterious intrigue and bold adventure.

What are the facts? The facts are that Harvey had little more to do with the nomination of Harding than I did, and that Daugherty was immensely surprised when good Warren won. The nomination was really due to the intense heat, and to that alone. The delegates, torn by the savage three cornered fight between Lowden, Johnson, and Wood, came to Saturday morning in despair. The temperature in the convention hall was at least 120 degrees. They were eager to get home. When it became apparent that the leaders could not break the deadlock they ran amuck and nominated Harding, as the one aspirant who had no enemies. If any individual managed the business it was not Harvey or Daugherty, but Myron T. Herrick. But so far as I know Herrick’s hand in it has never been mentioned.

* * *

I turn to a more pleasant field — that of sport in the grand manner. On July 2, 1921, in the great bowl at Jersey City, the Hon. Jack Dempsey met M. Carpentier, the gallant frog. The sympathy of the crowd was overwhelmingly with M. Carpentier and every time he struck a blow he got a round of applause, even if it didn’t land. I had an excellent seat, very near the ring, and saw every move of the two men. From the first moment Dr. Dempsey had it all his own way. He could have knocked out M. Carpentier in the first half of the first round. After that first half he simply waited his chance to do it politely and humanely.

Yet certain great newspapers reported the next morning that M. Carpentier had delivered an appalling wallop in the second round and that Dr. Dempsey had narrowly escaped going out. Others told the truth, but what chance had the truth against that romantic lie? It is believed in to this day by at least 99.99 per cent of all the boxing fans in Christendom. Carpentier himself, when he recovered from his beating, admitted categorically that it was nonsense, but even Carpentier could make no headway against the almost universal human tendency to cherish what is not true. A thousand years hence schoolboys will be taught that the frog had Dempsey going. It may become in time a religious dogma, like the doctrine that Jonah swallowed the whale. Scoffers who doubt it will be damned to hell.

The moral, if any, I leave to psycho-pathologists, if competent ones can be found. All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe. If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk.


Millard Fillmore’s 211th

January 7, 2011

Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800. Had he lived, Millard Fillmore would be 211 years old today, very cranky, and looking for a good book to read.

Millard Fillmore clipart from University of South Florida

Millard Fillmore clipart from University of South Florida - Free! Click image to go to USF site.

Would you blame him for being cranky? He opened Japan to trade. He got from Mexico the land necessary to make Los Angeles a great world city and the Southern Pacific a great railroad, without firing a shot. Fillmore promoted economic development of the Mississippi River. He managed to keep a fractious nation together despite itself for another three years. Fillmore let end the practice of presidents using slaves to staff the White House, then called “the President’s Mansion,” eight years before the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Then in 1852 his own party refused to nominate him for a full term, making him the last Whig to be president. And to add insult to ignominy, H. L. Mencken falsely accused him of being known only for adding a bathtub to the White House, something he didn’t do.

As Antony said of Caesar, the good was interred with his bones — but Millard Fillmore doesn’t even get credit for whatever evil he might have done: Fillmore is remembered most for being the butt of a hoax gone awry, committed years after his death. Or worse, he’s misremembered for what the hoax alleged he did.

Even beneficiaries of his help promoting the Mississippi River have taken his name off their annual celebration of the event. Fillmore has been eclipsed, even in mediocrity (is there still a Millard Fillmore Society in Washington?).

Happy birthday, Millard Fillmore.

Millard Fillmore, free clipart from University of South Florida

Millard Fillmore, free clipart from University of South Florida

Millard Fillmore was a man of great civic spirit, a man who answered the call to serve even when most others couldn’t hear it at all. He was a successful lawyer, despite having had only six months of formal education (a tribute to non-high school graduates and lifelong learning). Unable to save the Union, he established the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.  During the Civil War, he led the local militia in support of the war effort, many rungs down from his role of Commander-in-Chief.  And, it is said of him that Queen Victoria said he was the most handsome man she had ever met.

A guy like that deserves a toast, don’t you think?

Resources:


Almost neglecting the “neglected anniversary” of Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, H. L. Mencken’s hoax, and the lessons that lie therein

December 29, 2010

Could I get a longer title?  Here is our annual tribute to the hoax that gave its name and much inspiration to this blog.

Otherwise occupied — Kenny’s due to board an airplane in Beijing soon; tires for the cars; papers to correct, curriculum to correct; our wedding anniversary I cannot forget pending –  I nearly forgot: 93 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 book, A 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:


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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Remembering Millard Fillmore on his birthday

January 7, 2009

Millard Fillmore was born January 7, 1800. Had he lived, Millard Fillmore would be 209 years old today, and probably very cranky.

Millard Fillmore, official portrait - WhiteHouseHistory.org; 1857, by George P. A. Healy

Millard Fillmore, official portrait - WhiteHouseHistory.org; 1857, by George P. A. Healy

Would you blame him?  He opened Japan to trade.  He got from Mexico the land necessary to make Los Angeles a great world city and the Southern Pacific a great railroad, without firing a shot.  Fillmore promoted economic development of the Mississippi River.  He managed to keep a fractious nation together despite itself for another three years.  Fillmore let end the practice of presidents using slaves to staff the White House (then called “the President’s Mansion”).

Then in 1852 his own party refused to nominate him for a full term, making him the last Whig to be president.  And to add insult to ignominy, H. L. Mencken falsely accused him of being known only for adding a bathtub to the White House, something he didn’t do.

As Antony said of Caesar, the good was interred with his bones — but Millard Fillmore doesn’t even get credit for whatever evil he might have done:  Fillmore is remembered most for being the butt of a hoax gone awry, committed years after his death.  Or worse, he’s misremembered for what the hoax alleged he did.

Even beneficiaries of his help promoting the Mississippi River have taken his name off their annual celebration of the eventFillmore has been eclipsed, even in mediocrity (is there still a Millard Fillmore Society in Washington?).

Happy birthday, Millard Fillmore.

The Buffalo News, in the town Fillmore loved and worked to make great, said this morning:

Today is Millard Fillmore’s 209th birthday. Every year we vow to join those hardy folks from the University at Buffalo for their birthday observance at the monument to the 13th President on his grave in Section F in Forest Lawn. And every year the weather convinces us to stay inside. If you want to brave it, it starts at 10 a.m. There’s a reception in the chapel after the ceremony.

I’m in Dallas.  You won’t see me there.

All the living presidents meet today in the White House.  Will they toast Fillmore?

Millard Fillmore was a man of great civic spirit, a man who answered the call to serve even when most others couldn’t hear it at all.  He was a successful lawyer, despite having had only six months of formal education (a tribute to non-high school graduates and lifelong learning).  Unable to save the Union, he established the University of Buffalo and the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.  And, it is said of him, that Queen Victoria said he was the most handsome man she had ever met.

A guy like that deserves a toast, don’t you think?

Resources:


A neglected 91st anniversary of Mencken and Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

December 28, 2008

91 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.

Resources:


Typewriter of the moment: Mencken and the 1948 conventions

June 10, 2008


Mencken at 1948 Democratic Convention

Mencken at 1948 Democratic Convention

Photo from the collection of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, at the Park Library, University of North Carolina.

H. L. Mencken at one of the 1948 political conventions (Thomas Dewey was the Republican nominee, Harry S. Truman was the Democratic nominee). Obviously the photo is a copy from the National Press Club Library. The Park Library site describes the photo and Mencken:

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was a familiar figure at many national political conventions. This photo, taken at the one in 1948, was his last political convention. He is well known for his attacks on American taste and culture, or the lack of same. His magnum opus, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, was first published in 1919 and remains a classic. From 1906 to 1941, he worked chiefly as a reporter, editor, and columnist for the Baltimore Sun. (Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun Library.)

Assuming Mencken covered both conventions, this photo was taken at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in mid-July, 1948. We know it was taken in Philadelphia since both parties held their conventions there that year, the Republicans from June 21 to June 26, and the Democrats from July 12 to July 14.

Republicans nominated New York Gov. Thomas J. Dewey and California Gov. Earl Warren for president and vice president.

After a contentious convention that saw Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey propose a civil rights plank that got South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond to walk out of the convention and found his own States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party (with himself as the nominee for president), and former Vice President Henry Wallace walk out because the party platform was too conservative (Wallace ran on the Socialist Progressive Party ticket), Democrats nominated President Harry S Truman and Kentucky Sen. Alben W. Barkley for president and vice president. Truman narrowly defeated Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell for the nomination. Had Thurmond not walked out, Truman may well have lost the nomination of his own party.

And the rest of the story?

  • Truman had a contentious second term, and was defeated in the New Hampshire primary in 1952 by Sen. Estes Kefauver; Truman ended his campaign for a second full term shortly after.
  • Earl Warren was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Truman’s successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in late 1953. Warren is remembered for engineering the 9-0 decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education which ruled “separate but equal” school systems to violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and for his chairing the commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
  • Hubert Humphrey moved on to the U.S. Senate, served as Vice President to Lyndon Johnson, and won the Democratic nomination for president in another contentious convention in 1968 in Chicago. Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, and returned to the U.S. Senate two years later.
  • Strom Thurmond won election to the U.S. Senate in 1954, switching parties to Republican in 1964, and serving until his death in 2003.
  • Russell, who had served as Georgia’s senator since 1933, continued to serve to his death on January 21, 1971; he was a key member of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Russell Senate Office Building is named in his honor, the oldest of the three Senate office buildings.
  • Barkley was the oldest vice president ever inaugurated, aged 71. He remarried in his first year as vice president (his first wife died in 1947). Barkley’s nephew suggested that he should be called “the veep” because “Mr. Vice President” was too long. The title was seized up on by headline writers. Considered too old to run for the presidency in 1952, Barkley won a U.S. Senate seat from Kentucky in the 1954 elections, serving from 1955 to his death in 1956. Barkley Dam on the Cumberland River is named in his honor, as is the lake behind it, Lake Barkley.
  • Henry Wallace finished a distant fourth in the 1948 election, behind Dewey and Thurmond. His political career was essentially over due to his inability or unwillingness to disavow communist support. He achieved success as a chicken breeder. In a daramatic turnabout, he wrote a book, Where I Was Wrong, disavowing communism and critical of Joseph Stalin, and endorsed Republican candidates in 1956 and 1960. He died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1965.
  • Dewey returned to his law practice. In 1952, Dewey helped engineer the nomination of Eisenhower over his old political nemesis Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, pushed Richard Nixon as the Vice Presidential nominee, and in 1956 first convinced Ike to run again, and then to keep Nixon on the ticket. Dewey politely refused offers of offices, including refusing a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, sticking to his law practice which made him very wealthy. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1971, at age 68.
  • Mencken suffered a stroke later in 1948 that left him unable to speak, or read, or write for a time. He spent much of the rest of his life working to organize his papers, and died in 1956. His epitaph, on his tombstone and on a plaque in the lobby of the Baltimore Sun, reads: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl.”

Bathtubs in the White House 15 years before Fillmore

January 8, 2008

Is this the information which confirms Mencken’s writing was really a hoax? Can we confirm there was a bathtub in the White House before Millard Fillmore got there?

America’s premier building historian, William Seale, lists a timeline at the White House Historical Association that shows showers and baths installed in the White House about 15 years before Millard Fillmore could have the chance:

Hand pump shower from 1830s, similar to White House version (Smithsonian)

Running water was introduced into the White House in 1833. Initially its purpose was to
supply the house with drinking water and to fill reservoirs for protection against fire. An
engineer named Robert Leckie built the system of reservoirs, pumps, and pipes that
supplied the White House, and the Treasury, State, War, and Navy buildings with water.
Very soon, a “bathing room” was established in the east wing to take advantage of the
fine water supply. The room featured a cold bath, a shower, and a hot bath heated by coal
fires under large copper boilers.

Source: William Seale, The President’s House, 199-200. (Photo: Hand pump shower, similar to those installed in the 1830s White House; from the Smithsonian’s collection)

In 1833, Andrew Jackson started his second term.  Regardless when in 1833 that was done, Jackson was the president.

Seale also has Franklin Pierce improving the plumbing upstairs, in the family quarters (which may be the source of Scholastic’s claim that Pierce put the first tub in):

The 1850s saw many improvements and expansions to the mansion’s existing conveniences. By this time many Americans who had gaslight wondered how they had ever lived without it. President Zachary Taylor ordered an enlargement of the gas system into the White House’s offices, family quarters, and basement. Millard Fillmore determined that the house should be comfortable in any season and had the heating system improved. The White House of Franklin Pierce came to represent the best domestic technology of its time (1853). The heating plant was modified again with the addition of a hot-water furnace that was more efficient and healthful because the air was warmed directly by coils rather than “cooked” from outside the air chamber. Pierce also made significant improvements to the plumbing and toilet facilities, including the installation of a bathroom on the second floor with the first permanent bathing facilities. The new bathroom was luxurious in having both hot and cold water piped in. Before 1853 bathing on the second floor required portable bathtubs, and kettles of hot water had to be hauled up from the existing east wing bathing room.

Source: William Seale, The President’s House, 283, 291, 315-16; and William Seale, The White House: The History of an American Idea, 90.

And wouldn’t you know it: Seale is a native of Beaumont, Texas. It takes a Texan to get the details to dispel these hoaxes.

 


A neglected anniversary

January 5, 2008

Gee, here’s one this blog really should be celebrating: December 28 was the 90th anniversary of the Mencken Fillmore Bathtub Hoax column.

According to the Associated Press, this the historic highlight for December 28:

On Dec. 28, 1917, the New York Evening Mail published “A Neglected Anniversary,” a facetious essay by H.L. Mencken supposedly recounting the history of bathtubs in America. (For example, Mencken “claimed” the first American bathtub made its debut in the Cincinnati home of grain dealer Adam Thompson on Dec. 20, 1842, and that the first White House bathtub was installed in 1851 at the order of President Millard Fillmore.)

We know Mencken was only foolin’.


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