The Biggest Hoax in Bathtub History

On December 28th 1917 an article called ‘A Neglected Anniversary’ was published in the New York Evening Mail. The ‘neglected anniversary’ the title mentioned was the introduction of the bathtub to the USA, seventy-five years prior.

It’s author, journalist HL Mencken, had it go like this:

Cincinnati grain trader Adam Thompson’s business often took him to England, where he “acquired the habit of bathing” during the 1830s.

English bathtubs at the time were “confined to a small group of enthusiasts,” and “little more than glorified dishpans”.

Adam Thompson came up with the idea of combining the bathtub with pipes instead of using a maid, as the English did.

In 1842 Thompson set up the first American bathtub in his own home to put his theories into practice. Made by a local cabinet maker, “…mahogany lined with lead, seven feet long and fully four feet wide…” and weighing in at “about 1750 pounds”, it sounds more like a coffin than a bathtub.

Later, showing it off to friends on Christmas day 1842, he convinced five of them to try the experience out for themselves, and as word spread, local newspapers “opened their columns to violent discussions of it.”

Popular among the rich, many sceptics of this new invention saw it as “an obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic.” There was also a lot of medical opposition to it, which eventually died down.

When President Millard Fillmore took a bathe in Thompson’s original bathtub on a tour through Cincinnati, he liked it so much that he ordered one to be built in the White House. After a little controversy about what having a bathtub built said about the president’s aspirations, bathtubs began to become commonplace and by 1860 a bathtub could be found in every New York hotel, “…some having even two or three.”

But it turned out that HL Mencken had made most of this up. The article, instead of immediately being ousted as a scandalous lie, was actually reprinted by other newspapers, excerpts of it eventually making their way into encyclopaedias and being taken as fact.

Mencken, seeing his false information so proliferated, finally came forward eight years later to admit in the Chicago Tribune that the whole story was “…planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days” and that he was surprised when his “idle jocosities were taken with complete seriousness.”

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