Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mencken's Bathtub Hoax

Last spring, EHT wrote about an Internet hoax about Franklin Pierce. I'm also an educator and I'm constantly amazed at what students (and everyone else!) will believe from the Internet. But hoaxes and false information are nothing new. In 1917, HL Mencken published an article called "The Neglected Anniversary" about the history of the bathtub, including that Millard Fillmore helped to give it respectability. He meant it as a joke...people believed it! So he published again, telling the world it was a hoax, but still people kept believing the original story! The Boston Herald actually republished his original story as news after publishing his expose three weeks earlier! Even to this day, the story continues to circulate! Just because it is in print doesn't mean its true (I hope my students are reading this....)!

So what's the real story on the White House tub and plumbing? Here are some great facts and discussion on the subject:
  • James Madison (1809-17) is said to have had a bathtub installed in 1814, but that the water had to be heated on a stove and carried in a bucket. And the bathtub didn't get much use because of the fire set by the British.
  • James Monroe (1817-25) reportedly purchased the first tub---a tin cylinder---for $20 or $30. An 1825 inventory list included "wash bins and close stools" (commodes or boxed-in chamber pots) and "one elegant mahogany gilt mounted close stool." A basement "wash room" is also mentioned, leading to speculation that the laundry was scrubbed during the day and the President in the evening.
  • Andrew Jackson (1829-37) in 1834 conducted a $45,000 modernization of the White House, which included the introduction of "fresh spring water ... the warm, cold and shower baths and have been repaired and greatly improved."
  • Martin Van Buren (1837-41) was criticized by Congressman Charles Ogle as "the first President who made the discovery that the pleasures of the warm or tepid bath are the proper accommodations of a palace life. For it appears that our former Presidents were content with the application, when necessary, of a simple shower bath."
  • Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) was credited by the Portsmouth Ohio Times in 1932 to "hold the distinction of being the first President of the United States to splash his way to cleanliness in a White House bathtub, the first bathtub having been installed in the White House during his presidency." The newspaper did not specify from which source it received its information, citing only a water consumption report.
  • Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81), whose wife Lucy was believed to have first insisted on a bathtub. Lending credibility to the claim is Mrs. Hayes' reputation for having a stern will. She was known as "Lemonade Lucy" because she banned liquor from the White House.
  • Chester A. Arthur (1881-85) was given due by White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover in a 1934 Saturday Evening Post article. It read, "Plumbing was introduced by Arthur ... Arthur's two bathrooms were converted from virtually public baths into private ones."

Actually the first bathtub at the White House was the Potomac River. Just who discontinued the practice of outdoor bathing and when, is a source of contention. According to an essay by Norman J. Radder, longtime executive director for the Plumbing and Heating Industries Bureau (now the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Information Bureau), the first mention of a private bathroom was during the Monroe administration, but Radder wasn't sure about the existence of a tub. John Quincy Adams (1825-29) held the key to Radder's skepticism about the Monroe tub. Radder wrote:

Monroe's tub must have scared [Adams], for we read that the poor man, 'weather permitting,' rose and took his plunge in the Potomac between daybreak and sunrise. This had its hardships. On one occasion, someone made off with his clothes and he had to shout until he attracted the attention of a small boy, who ran to the White House for more.

Saturday Evening Post Washington editor Beverly Smith in a 1952 article maintained that only the first installed tub should be considered, which eliminates Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. "Therefore, the spotlight turns ... to the most unlikely man: Old Hickory [Jackson]," Smith deduced. "Major [William] Noland, his building commissioner, showed special interest and pride in bathing facilities; he referred specifically to 'warm, cold and shower baths,' so I hereby guess that the first regular bath, properly so-called, was installed somewhere between 1829 and 1833 by the rough, tough, tobacco-chewing Tennessean."

Other Presidential bathtub anecdotes worth mentioning:

  • William Howard Taft (1909-13), who at 330 pounds was too hefty to fit into a standard-sized tub, had a custom tub built for his extra-large frame. After it was manufactured, four men fit inside the tub for a photograph.
  • President Truman's bathtub had a hidden message carved in glass on the backside which read: "In this tub bathes the man whose heart is always clean and serves his people truthfully." The author was a glass carver who was commissioned to design the glass panels of five tubs.

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