Hoaxes on hoaxes: Bathtub hoax debunkers start a new hoax?

[If you’re interested in the hoax aspect, see this update post.]

Is this just an error, or a new hoax on the way to debunking an old one?  This is a story of an insider’s hoax, or an interesting error.

It’s from the Museum of Hoaxes.  Surely they would be careful about such matters, no?

The Museum of Hoaxes’ History of the Bathtub is largely a history of H. L. Mencken’s famous 1917 hoax history of the bathtub, in which he claimed Millard Fillmore had bravely led America to indoor bathing by installing a bathtub in the White House in 1853.

Readers of this blog well know this story.  Fillmore wasn’t the first to put a bathtub in the White House.  He wasn’t the first to put plumbing in the White House.  He wasn’t the first to put a plumbed bathtub in the White House, nor the first to run hot water to it. Anything in Mencken’s column that squares with history did so accidentally.  Mencken was making a big joke.

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.

So of course I read the piece at the Hoax Museum.

What ho!  Here is a section that discusses how the hoax refuses to die:

Curtis MacDougall, writing in 1958, reported finding fifty-five different instances since 1926 of Mencken’s bathtub history being presented to audiences as fact. Some of the examples that MacDougall collected follow:

October, 1926: Scribner’s included an article, “Bathtubs, Early Americans,“ by Fairfax Downey, based almost entirely on Mencken’s story.

March 16, 1929: In “Baltimore Day by Day,“ by Carroll Dulaney, in Mencken’s own newspaper, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the story is told under the heading, “Painting the Lily.“

September 26, 1929: The Paris, France, edition of the New York Herald rewrites an article by Ruth Wakeman in the New York Sun entitled, “Americans Once Frowned on Bathtubs, Condemning Them for Fancied Hazards.“

December 1, 1931: The Tucson, Arizona, Daily Star interviews C.R. King, manager of the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company branch in Tucson, on the imminent birthday of the bathtub. Mr. King, who according to the Star “had apparently studied the matter considerably,“ hands out the same old facts, which are printed under a two-column head, “Bathtub Will Have Birthday in America During December.“

April 27, 1933: A United Features Syndicate feature, “How It Began,“ by Russ Murphy and Ray Nenuskay includes an illustration of Adam Thompson in his first bathtub.

1935: Dr. Hans Zinsser, professor in the Medical School of Harvard University, says on page 285 of his best-selling Rats, Lice and History: “The first bathtub didn’t reach America, we believe, until about 1840.”

November 15, 1935: R.J. Scott’s “Scott’s Scrapbook,“ syndicated by the Central Press Asociation, includes a sketch of a policeman chasing a bather away from his bath, together with the caption: As late as 1842 some American cities prohibited the use of bathtubs.”

May 27, 1936: Dr. Shirley W. Wynne, former commissioner of health for New York City, uses the “facts” in a radio address, “What Is Public Health?“ over WEAF.

February, 1937: The United Press Red Letter includes a story from Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Dr. Cecil K. Drinker, dean and professor of physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, has discovered that his great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Drinker of Philadelphia, had a bathtub in her home as early as 1803, thus disputing Cincinnati’s claim to fame for having the first American bathtub. (The Chicago Daily News used the story March 27, 1937.)

September 28, 1938: Hearst’s American Weekly includes an article, “There’s a Lot of History Behind Your Bathtub,“ by Virginia S. Eiffert, research expert and contributor to Natural History, official magazine of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and other publications. Miss Eiffert’s research has uncovered the old stand-by.

Sept. 20, 1942: Julia Spiegelman retold the entire Adam Thompson tale as fact in an article, “Bathtub’s United States Centennial” in the Baltimore Sun, Mencken’s own newspaper.

April 28, 1951: In this day’s issue of The New Yorker John Hersey revealed, in a profile on Harry S. Truman, that “the president seemed reluctant to let go of his belief” in the fact that Millard Fillmore introduced the first bathtub into the White House in 1850. President Truman was known to include the spurious facts in the “lecture” he gave visitors to the renovated executive mansion.

Sept. 16, 1952: In a speech in Philadelphia, President Truman told the story to illustrate what great progress has occurred in public health.

I noted the Tucson Daily Star mention — I spent a year in Tucson at the University of Arizona, and on a couple of projects spent hours poring through old copies of the Star and it’s competitor, The Tucson Daily Citizen, but never getting close to any story on Fillmore, bathtubs, or Mencken.  Interesting.

And did you see?  There’s a reference to Zinsser’s great book, Rats, Lice and History.   One of my favorite books of all time. Other suggested it should be included in the small, essential library of any historian or teacher of history, when I was working on assembling a list of necessary books (a project I really should get back to one day).

Zinsser was the guy who isolated the pathogen that causes typhus, and developed a vaccine against the disease.  More importantly, he was a bit of a rake and an excellent, and funny, writer.  The book is a breezy read,  packed with enlightening discussions of history, wars, economic booms and busts, sieges of great cities, and how disease stalks the pages of history much more than merely during the outbreaks of the plague in the middle of the second millennium.

I read the book the year I graduated from high school, though now I don’t remember whether it was during the school year or after.  It was recommended to me by a college English professor, Kirk Rasmussen (the Utah guy), whose wife was my last high school debate coach.  Kirk laughed all the way through the book.  I borrowed his paperback copy and finished it off in a week or two.

You can learn a lot about ecology studying how a disease is spread.  A disease like typhus, which involves insect, louse, rodent and human carriers, exposes the links that, however improbable or preposterous, are necessary to keep a pathogen going.  Zinsser gives a great rundown of the history of rats, the history of fleas, the history of lice (which are not insects, if you wish to be carefully accurate, which you do, of course).

So his book is useful in literature classes.  It’s a good source of history.  Plus, it’s a good meta source for biologists and medical researchers.

In fact I have a copy here on this desk — I was trying to find a short excerpt that I could use in my world history classes, something to intrigue students and give them fodder for an exercise or project.

So, I looked at that listing, and thought I should check it out:

1935: Dr. Hans Zinsser, professor in the Medical School of Harvard University, says on page 285 of his best-selling Rats, Lice and History: “The first bathtub didn’t reach America, we believe, until about 1840.”

You can see this one coming, can’t you?

Rats, Lice and History has only 228 pages, in all three editions I have here at the house.

So of course I checked pages 185, 85, and 28.  Nothing.

Then I looked at the table of contents (there is no index), to see in what chapter such a comment might find a home.  Zinsser wrote in the U.S., was born in the U.S., so it wouldn’t be wholly out of his character to note some little item of public health at the White House.  But I’ll be doggoned if I can figure out where such a comment would fit in the book.

Is this just a miscitation by Museum of Hoaxes?  Or is it a new hoax altogether?  Is it a hoax the Museum of Hoaxes has fallen victim to, or is it of their invention?

Now I wonder about all the other mentions there.  Are they accurate?  Are they whole cloth fiction, voodoo history?  Did the Tucson Daily Star even exist in 1931?

We never solve one mystery that we don’t open up a dozen more.

Readers, can you shed light?

I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation.

2 Responses to Hoaxes on hoaxes: Bathtub hoax debunkers start a new hoax?

  1. […] Found it! Hoax Museum is right: Zinsser got it wrong Found it!  [See previous post.] […]


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