Fillmore’s bathtub, water’s running


I got several e-mails about the mystery of just who did install the first bathtub in the White House — the first plumbed, running water bathtub, not just the first tub. The White House Historical Association provides partial answers at their website:

The first running water was plumbed into the White House in 1833 — during Andrew Jackson’s administration.

Running hot water first made it to the First Family’s quarters on the second floor in 1853 (no, it wasn’t that somebody left the water on from 1833 and it took 20 years to back up — we’re talking pipes and a water heater).

1853! There was an election held in 1852, but Fillmore’s party, the Whigs, gave the nomination to Gen. Winfield Scott. He lost the election to Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce. (Fillmore would be the last Whig president; he won the Whig nomination in 1856, and the nomination of the Know-Nothing Party, but neither party had much strength. The race was between John C. Fremont of California, who had the first-ever presidential nomination of a new party made up of Free Soilers, antislavery Democrats and Whigs, called the Republicans; and Democrat James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. Buchanan won, of course. Fillmore was actually president during part of 1853!

There are two issues of interest to me here. The first, of course, is whether the White House Historical Association has fallen victim to the Mencken hoax, or whether the first plumbed bathtub really was installed in 1853; and the second issue is related: If the tub was installed after March, it would have been in Pierce’s administration (the new president took office in March until 1933). So there were two presidents in 1853, and one of them was Millard Fillmore. Which would get the credit, if 1853 is an accurate year?

Isn’t it somewhat ironic that there is, at this date, a possibility that part of Mencken’s hoax could be verified as accurate?

4 Responses to Fillmore’s bathtub, water’s running

  1. […] And one of the little delights of reading history is finding people who should know better, who have been suckered in by Mencken’s hoax. […]

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  2. Ed Darrell says:

    One of the reasons this hoax can hang on is that it involves such a minor point, and one for which the archives are not well-stocked with information. Putting a plumbed bathtub in the White House is not an event equal to the writing of the Constitution, for example. I think we can be rather sure we know much of what went into the Constitution.

    What are the archives for such an issue? The White House historian has been rather cagey with me — that is, I can’t get a response. I suspect there are blueprints, work orders, and purchase documents somewhere that would shed some light. There may even be official histories. We small, confused people could, if we had the time, check the National Archives and Library of Congress, to begin. Newspaper archives and other histories, especially contemporary histories, would be most useful. Some civil engineer probably did a survey of plumbing in the District of Columbia in the middle of the 19th century, and it would shed a lot of light. (I’ll wager the Census Bureau didn’t ask that famous question about indoor plumbing so early — too bad!)

    Then we start into the really obscure sources. Who were the guests of Millard Fillmore at the White House? Overnight guests? Did they keep diaries? What do those diaries say? And if it was Andrew Jackson, what do those archives show?

    Fillmore started an autobiography. I’ve never found it cited anywhere, but it’s available on-line in image form through the New York State Library, and at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. He didn’t get far. Perhaps he had notes, and perhaps someone could check with those sources to see his papers. Fillmore started the BECHS, and so we might expect that he had some sense of keeping records for later historians to pore over. A citizen of upstate New York with a few hours to spend in such archives could perform a valuable public service.

    You know, there is a lot of history there to be learned, still recorded, awaiting someone to accumulate it and write it up.

    You raise a very good point, though. Fillmore was widely not respected during his lifetime. A lot of what should have been recorded simply was not. Why don’t you step in and fill in the gaps?

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  3. Heidi says:

    It seems that every history sight has either fallen victim to the Mencken hoax or has included it in their story, tangling it up so, that it is completely muddled. Every sight goes back and forth (The Fillmores or the Andrews?) (Is it true or is it not?) Most people probably do not care, but for the ones that do, this needs to be corrected. And chew on this, sure the guy confessed it was false, but what else in our history is made-up? What if there are those few people who made up history but dont want to fess up because now would that not be tampering in legal documents? Worthy of many years in prison? The only thing left to do now is start all over again, go straight to the source, our archives, and this time leave out Mencken’s story. The question is: Who do we small, confused people know that can get us this info?

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  4. […] She also wrote that it was Andrew Jackson who introduced the bathtub to the White House, in 1834. This contrasts with the White House story I noted earlier, attributing the introduction of the tub to Fillmore’s wife in 1853. (Before my hard-drive crash, I wrote to the White House historian asking for a check of the veracity of that story. I’ve got nothing in response.) What is McLemore’s source for the Andrew Jackson tub? […]

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