Skip to main content

A Tale Of A Tub

May 2024
1min read

On December 28, 1917, there appeared in the New York Evening Mail an article entitled “A Neglected Anniversary.” It purported to be a history of the bathtub in America, but it was in fact made up from whole cloth by the formidable H. L. Mencken. Those who wish to check the particulars of Mencken’s fantasy can refer to page 102 of last February’s issue, where we ran it, having picked it up from the “Gilcrease Gazette.” A full score of readers caught us helping to keep Mencken’s durable hoax alive, among them Arthur P. Underbill of Massillon, Ohio, who wrote that we were “foxy enough to state at the end of this column that ‘any resemblance to actual fact is strictly incidental.’” We were not so much foxy as fortunate, for that authoritative little history has surfaced again and again, defying all attempts to quash it. After it began to catch on, Mencken said (somewhat disingenuously, one suspects, for he tended not to overestimate the perspicacity of the American public): “My motive was simply to have some harmless fun in war days. It never occurred to me that it would be taken seriously.” But it was. A decade after the article first appeared, Mencken wrote:
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.

In 1926, for instance, Fairfax Downey wrote a history of the bathtub drawing almost entirely on Mencken’s spurious facts, and five years later the story was seriously alluded to in the Baltimore Evening Sun , in whose offices Mencken had a desk. In the early iQSo’s Harry Truman told the tale to White House visitors, and at last it has filtered into our pages. We repudiate and deny the story, but that won’t do any good—it will be around forever.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate