You might have noticed that the world right now is a pretty messy place. I suppose that’s always true to some extent, but in this moment, it feels especially difficult to discuss important things without a misstep sure to incur the wrath of someone. Of course, this particular blog doesn’t enjoy a terribly wide audience anyway and so I doubt there would be much public outcry were I to accidentally presume an incorrect gender pronoun or commit an inadvertent microaggression or innocently inquire whether a particular bumbling world leader is in fact a malfunctioning animatron.
Not that I would do any of those things. As I have stated numerous times, this blog is rarely about anything important, but there are moments in history when open, honest, and nuanced conversation is of critical importance. It’s at times such as these that those with public platforms of any size have a sacred duty to explore the stories that truly matter and that have the potential to shape public discourse and affect the world.
As you no doubt have assumed, I’m talking about stories such as the history of bathtubs.
It was during the lead up to WW I, another difficult moment in history, when long-successful journalist H. L. Mencken discovered that his sympathies for the German culture and its people, outside of the scope of its politics, could find no place in the media. Amid a sea of reports that universally painted German citizens as inherently monstrous, there was no room for the more balanced approach of Mencken’s writing.
And so, he decided to go in a different direction. On December 28, 1917, the New York Evening Mail published his article lamenting the fact that on December 20th of that year, the nation had failed to celebrate the momentous seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub in the United States.
The leap forward in American hygiene, Mencken attributed to a Cincinnati businessman named Adam Thompson, whose world travels had led him to appreciate the ingenious tub his fellow countrymen so desperately feared. Thompson hired cabinetmaker James Cullness to make him a bathtub of his own, a project which soon gained a great deal of attention and spawned a rapidly growing controversy that resulted in numerous American cities enacting ordinances governing the use of the dangerous bathing contraptions.
Had that been the end of the story, the bathtub may have fallen out of use and been lost to the complexities of history, but its path toward greatness crossed with that of then vice president Millard Fillmore, who decided that taking a bath maybe wasn’t as bad as the outcry from the medical community suggested.
When he later became president upon the death of Zachary Taylor, one of Fillmore’s first acts as the new occupant of the White House, was to add a bathtub, a terribly presidential action that served to help normalize the tub’s usage and forever alter the hygiene habits of the American public.
The article was well-received. More than a hundred years later, Mencken’s work remains a frequently quoted authoritative source on the fascinating history of the bathtub. It stands as a brilliant testament to the same kind of journalistic integrity we expect to see today.
And by that, I mean he made the entire thing up. It was Mencken’s stated intention to provide lighthearted distraction during a time of tough news, though many have suggested that he was fed up with his own struggles to get his more serious work out there and wanted to provide evidence of just how easily a journalist such as himself can feed pretty much any information to a gullible public as long as he isn’t asking them to think too hard about it. He came clean about the fabricated history in 1926, but by then Millard Fillmore’s place in bathtub history was sealed. It still isn’t difficult to find the tale splashed across the internet or even occasionally in serious books written by serious people.
We may never know Mencken’s motivation for certain, but what we do know is that currently the White House contains thirty-five bathrooms. As I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of those bathrooms probably contain tubs, I might know a way to get to the truth of this malfunctioning animatron rumor.