February 21, 2018

Mencken's Tub & Hot Water

On this day in 1917, H. L. Mencken's "A Neglected Anniversary," his hoax article on the American invention of the bathtub, was published in the New York Evening Mail. Mencken's lifelong campaign to deride and derail Main Street America -- the "booboisie" -- had a number of easy victories, but this joke succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and in Swiftian proportions.

In the omniscient tone of newspaper editorials, Mencken lamented and reprimanded that such an august cultural moment as the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bathtub should arrive and "Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day." This was worse than unhygienic; it was unpatriotic. A thankless, forgetful nation had forgotten that the first bathtubs -- these, of course, appeared in Cincinnati -- had been met with contempt by the social watchdogs, who thought them "an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic," and by the medical profession, who thought them likely to induce "phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases."

From there, according to Mencken's exhaustive research, the Great Bathtub Debate had snowballed:
    The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.
To Mencken's amazement and delight, this history of the triumphant American tub was swallowed and spread by newspapers and radio stations across the country. The "facts" were duly incorporated into reference books; the health and hygiene industry, not to mention the plumbers, touted the happy day; the White House calendar-makers, noting Mencken's claim that Millard Fillmore (chosen surely for his name) was the first President to install one, paid tribute to his tub.

Eight years after the original article Mencken attempted to pull the plug by publishing various confessions, but many regarded the confession as the hoax, and his bogus bathtub anniversary continued to be commemorated in many quarters. All of which more or less proved Mencken's point, one more political and personal than whimsical. His article had been written as a slap at Yankee gullibility in general, but specifically at those who currently accepted the WWI propaganda against Germany and all things German. Mencken had always championed German culture, and been openly contemptuous of those who decried the "dirty Huns," or attacked authors like Theodore Dreiser for their ancestry, or eschewed sauerkraut until the War Department cooked it up as "liberty cabbage." His pro-German stance had made him writer non grata with those newspaper editors now toeing the propaganda line; the bathtub hoax was his dirty trick on the squeaky-clean.

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