Many years ago, on what must have been a slow news day, the CBS Evening News noted that this particular date—January 7—was the birthday of Millard Fillmore, the 13th President. Perhaps in an effort to provide something noteworthy about Fillmore’s life, CBS added that, in 1850, Fillmore installed the first bathtub in the White House.
The next evening, CBS had to apologize for having fallen victim to the Great American Bathtub Hoax, first perpetrated by journalist H.L. Mencken in “A Neglected Anniversary,” published in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917.
Mencken declared, in jest, that the first American bathtub was installed on December 20, 1842, by Adam Thompson, a cotton and grain dealer who “acquired the habit of bathing” during frequent trips to England.
Mencken’s article was filled with fanciful details. Thompson’s wondrous device was “nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide,” made from Nicaragua mahogany and lined with sheet lead. The floor beneath it had to be reinforced to support its 1,750 pounds.
With no city water supply in his part of Cincinnati, Thompson installed a pump to lift water to the house from a well in his garden. On that fateful first day, he took a cold bath at 8 a.m. and a warm one in the afternoon. He later “devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon.”
The point at which the absurdity should have been obvious was when Mencken explained that it was only after Fillmore succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor and “instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House” that bathtubs became acceptable to the majority of Americans.
Eight years later, confronted with readers who “it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness," Mencken ’fessed up in a May 23, 1926, front-page article for the Chicago Tribune titled “Melancholy Reflections.”
What Mencken had intended as “a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days,” was reprinted in various newspapers and then started to receive letters actually offering corroboration:
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.
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.
In 1933, a United Features Syndicate cartoon, “How It Began,” included an illustration of Adam Thompson showing off his first bathtub. Two years later, Dr. Hans Zinsser at Harvard Medical School, declared in his book Rats, Lice and History, that “The first bathtub didn’t reach America, we believe, until about 1840.”
Menken’s own newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, retold the Thompson story as historical fact in an 1942 article celebrating the “Bathtub’s United States Centennial.”
President Harry Truman was known to include the “fact” about Fillmore’s bathtub in a lecture he gave visitors, and he included the story in a speech as evidence of progress in public health.
This was not the first example of “fake news” in American history. The “Great Moon Hoax,” about the supposed discovery of an exotic civilization on the moon, was published in the New York Sun way back in 1835. That same year, P.T. Barnum was exhibiting Joice Heth as the 161-year-old childhood nurse of George Washington. When the age claim fraud was exposed, Barnum insisted Heth was alive and on tour in Europe.
While the Moon creatures pop up as examples of a media hoax, and Joice Heth is the first in a long string of Barnum oddities, neither of those continues to be taken as gospel in the same way as Mencken’s bathtub.