How a newspaper hoax became ‘The History of the Bathtub’

Posted by | December 16, 2015


Middlesboro Daily News

Middlesboro, KY.

December 29, 1920

By Dr. Johnson Archer Gray

“As Mr. Dooley would say: ‘I see by the papers,’ that the Middlesboro police department are going to inaugurate a new feature in cleaning up the crooks in and around the city; they are going to give them baths to clean them outwardly. This ought to have a wholesome effect in keeping them away from the sight of the police, for if there is anything some of these gentry hate and flee, according to my own personal experience with many of them, it is clean water, vigorously applied to the outside.

“And that makes me think, there was a time in the history of the race when to take a bath was to commit a misdemeanor punishable with a heavy prison sentence, and later on there was a time when except on Saturday night, in England, one bathed only at his peril. Like other great reforms, the bathtub had to fight its way step by step. In Rome’s enlightened era, the tub flourished, but in the Dark Ages it disappeared, for there has always been an aversion to soap and water the farther north mankind traveled.

“Do you know that the first bathtub in the United States was made by a rich man in Cincinnati in 1852? It was built of mahogany and lined with tin, and the owner proudly showed it for the first time at a Christmas party. Of course he never used it. Next day the city papers denounced it as ‘wicked, undemocratic and vain.’ Then came the doctors who proclaimed it as ‘unhealthful and a menace to life.’

Illustration of Thompson’s bathtub, published in the Chronicle-Telegram, November 18, 1935.

“In 1843 the city of Philadelphia tried to pass an ordinance prohibiting bathing of any sort in public or private between November 1 and March 1. In the same year Boston made bathing prohibitive except under the orders of a physician, and Virginia taxed the people ( ____) a year for the
privilege of owning a bathtub. Up to the time of President Filmore, there was no bathtub in the White House.”

Dr. Johnson Archer Gray, the author of the above article, was just one of the thousands of journalists and historians across America who were taken in by the most astonishingly successful journalistic hoax of the early 20th century.

In 1917 H.L. Mencken wrote a colorful history of the bathtub, published in the New York Evening Mail.  According to Mencken’s article, Cincinnati cotton dealer Adam Thompson, who’d grown partial to tubs while visiting England, installed America’s first tub, of sheet lead and Nicaragua mahogany, in his home in 1842. From Cincinnati the tub’s progress was slow, because the medical profession initially believed that baths caused illness.  For a time, Mencken continued, several cities prohibited bathing except under medical supervision.

Gaining speed with every paragraph, Mencken further relates how President Millard Fillmore was captivated by the contraption after sloshing around in it on a stump tour, and, despite adverse public opinion, had a similar tub installed in the White House in 1851.

Mencken’s history quickly became the accepted wisdom.  Chiropractors cited it to prove that traditional medicine often stood in the way of progress.  Cincinnati advertised itself as the birthplace of the American bathtub.

The problem was, not a word of Mencken’s article was true. He wrote it, he later said, “to have some harmless fun in war days.”

After eight years had passed, Mencken decided his hoax had gone far enough. It was time to reveal what he had done. On May 23, 1926 he wrote a front-page article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Melancholy Reflections” in which he exposed his deception.

He unrepentantly announced that the article had been a “tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious.”  He had, he said, no idea what the true history of the bathtub was; “digging it out would be a dreadful job, and the result, after all that labor, would probably be a string of banalities.”

But the hoax refused to die. “Scarcely a month goes by,” Mencken wrote in 1949, 32 years after the original article appeared, “that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”

TIME magazine, “HISTORICAL NOTES: Rub-a-dub-dub,” Sep. 29, 1952, online at:,9171,935729,00.html#ixzz0v0tBqyjh

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