Bathtubs in the White House 15 years before Fillmore

January 8, 2008

Is this the information which confirms Mencken’s writing was really a hoax? Can we confirm there was a bathtub in the White House before Millard Fillmore got there?

America’s premier building historian, William Seale, lists a timeline at the White House Historical Association that shows showers and baths installed in the White House about 15 years before Millard Fillmore could have the chance:

Caption from Smithsonian: An 1830s hand pump shower similar to those once used in the White House bathing room. Smithsonian Institution

Caption from Smithsonian: An 1830s hand pump shower similar to those once used in the White House bathing room. Smithsonian Institution


Running water was introduced into the White House in 1833. Initially its purpose was to supply the house with drinking water and to fill reservoirs for protection against fire. An engineer named Robert Leckie built the system of reservoirs, pumps, and pipes that supplied the White House, and the Treasury, State, War, and Navy buildings with water. Very soon, a “bathing room” was established in the east wing to take advantage of the
fine water supply. The room featured a cold bath, a shower, and a hot bath heated by coal fires under large copper boilers.

Source: William Seale, The President’s House, 199-200. (Photo: Hand pump shower, similar to those installed in the 1830s White House; from the Smithsonian’s collection)

In 1833, Andrew Jackson started his second term.  Regardless when in 1833 that plumbing work was done, Jackson was the president.

Seale also has Franklin Pierce improving the plumbing upstairs, in the family quarters (which may be the source of Scholastic’s claim that Pierce put the first tub in):

The 1850s saw many improvements and expansions to the mansion’s existing conveniences. By this time many Americans who had gaslight wondered how they had ever lived without it. President Zachary Taylor ordered an enlargement of the gas system into the White House’s offices, family quarters, and basement. Millard Fillmore determined that the house should be comfortable in any season and had the heating system improved. The White House of Franklin Pierce came to represent the best domestic technology of its time (1853). The heating plant was modified again with the addition of a hot-water furnace that was more efficient and healthful because the air was warmed directly by coils rather than “cooked” from outside the air chamber. Pierce also made significant improvements to the plumbing and toilet facilities, including the installation of a bathroom on the second floor with the first permanent bathing facilities. The new bathroom was luxurious in having both hot and cold water piped in. Before 1853 bathing on the second floor required portable bathtubs, and kettles of hot water had to be hauled up from the existing east wing bathing room.

Source: William Seale, The President’s House, 283, 291, 315-16; and William Seale, The White House: The History of an American Idea, 90.

And wouldn’t you know it: Seale is a native of Beaumont, Texas. It takes a Texan to get the details to dispel these hoaxes.


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