Bathtub myth still haunts the ghost of Millard Fillmore

Presidents Day this year brought out columns and commentary in newspapers and other media across the country, with trivia about presidents.

Millard Fillmore in March, 1849, daguerreotype by Matthew Brady - Wikipedia image

Millard Fillmore in a daguerreotype by Matthew Brady in March, 1849, in a sitting at the U.S. Capitol. In 1849 the presidential inauguration took place in March — this may be a photo taken on inauguration day, but almost certainly when Fillmore was Vice President. Wikipedia image

What did we learn?  We learned that the old hoax, that Millard Fillmore put the first bathtub in the White House, still stands strong.  The ghost of H. L. Mencken, the guy who started the hoax, high-tails it to the nearest hotel bar for a beer; the ghost of Santayana smiles and shakes its head.  Fillmore’s ghost looks around for a good book to read.

Did one of the wires services run a story on the trivia that reporters picked up?

In the Diamond Bar (California) Patch, in a column of presidents trivia, editor Catherine Garcia reported:

  • Millard Fillmore installed the first bathtub and kitchen stove in the White House.

In that version of history, presidents were both dirty and hungry from 1801 to 1850, I suppose.

In the Quincy (Illinois) Herald-Whig, Steve Eighinger seconded the error:

º For some reason, Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, has been the butt of a lot of jokes over the years and I don’t know why. The guy seems pretty upstanding. When Fillmore moved into the White House, it didn’t have a Bible, so he corrected that oversight. He and his wife, Abigail, installed the first library at the White House, plus the first bathtub and kitchen stove. Fillmore could not read Latin and refused an honorary degree from Oxford University, saying a person shouldn’t accept a degree he could not read. (So how did the first 12 presidents take a bath?)

Give Mr. Eighinger credit.  In that parenthetical question, he begins to see the problems with the story, the hoax Mencken wrote.  Too bad he didn’t chase it down.

Yes, the Fillmores installed the first library in the White House — though it was more out of their love of books than a lack of a Bible.  And they updated the kitchen, but certainly someone had some sort of stove to cook on prior to 1850.

Punditty (a nome de plume, I hope) got the facts right at AllVoices:

13. Millard Fillmore wasn’t really the first president to have a bathtub installed in the White House. The actual answer is more complicated. See the link below under “Additional Sources.” He was, however, a member of three political parties during his lifetime: Anti-Masonic (1828-1832); Whig (1832-1856, including his presidency of 1850-53); and American (1856-1860).

I didn’t find the link to “Additional Sources.”  Perhaps the author referred to the notes under the Wikipedia article on Fillmore, which was linked from the site.  You should remember that the “American Party” to which Fillmore belonged, and on whose ticket he ran for the presidency in 1856, was also known as the “Know-Nothing Party.”

How many other newspapers carried the hoax in the past week, that my news hounds did not find?

Even in 1952, when President Harry Truman told the hoax, there was general knowledge that the story was false.  Why does it still circulate, 95 years after Mencken invented it?

When did the first plumbed bathtub go into the White House, and who was president at the time?

(Franklin Pierce was president when the first plumbed bathtub was installed in the president’s living quarters, in 1853; read the article linked to in the question.  It’s complicated.)

3 Responses to Bathtub myth still haunts the ghost of Millard Fillmore

  1. […] Bathtub myth still haunts the ghost of Millard Fillmore ( […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Carl, I did see your posts, and I fully intended to make an opportunity to refer to them — but haven’t yet.

    Dear reader, do yourself a favor and hie on over to Carl’s site to look at his work on Taft and the bathtub issues:


    And here:

    While you’re there, Dear Reader, spend some time. It will be time well spent.


  3. As usual so enjoyed this post – always some irony beyond the facts, some subtle reflection on the peculiarest beings of all – those humans. I guess I’m thinking of your Boorstin quote still.

    Meanwhile, pity not Millard alone in the tub, but truth not be told, Big Bill remains stuck there too, not by fact but the love of legend. Not sure if you ever saw the two-part piece I did, investigating the “stuck in a tub” Taft tale…might offer inroads into the mean and mad Mencken-mindedness the nation still holds dear. Cheers.


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