By: Kevin Grace
In 1917, the noted journalist and philologist H.L. Mencken published an article in the New York Evening Mail concerning the history of the bathtub in the United States. According to the Baltimore writer, known as much for his satire and acerbic wit as he was for his political reporting, Cincinnati was home to this tub. Mencken asserted that America’s first bathtub was introduced on December 20, 1842 by Adam Thompson who lived, in all places, Cincinnati, Ohio. Made of mahogany and lined with lead, the vessel was introduced by Thompson to his guests at a Christmas party, described how it worked, and invited the partygoers to take a dip. Four of them took him up on his offer, and the next day the invention was widely reported in the press.
From that point, there were considerable debates about both the possible medical dangers of tub-bathing and whether taxes should be levied on the household installation of bathtubs. Not many commonfolk took notice until 1850 when President Millard Fillmore, who had seen the tub when he visited Cincinnati, decided to have one placed in the White House where it faithfully served executive privilege until Grover Cleveland’s presidency.
Well, it was a wonderful story and certainly one of pride to Cincinnatians in the years following 1917, their gullibility notwithstanding. As the non-gullible suspected, the entire story was a hoax, revealed as such by Mencken himself in 1926. He was, he admitted, trying to have a bit of fun during the war years and didn’t anticipate that the story would be believed and spread to all points emanating from the Queen City.
So where do we stand on bathtubs today? With 2014 beginning the national jockeying for a presidential nomination in 2015, it’s always good to raise the ghost of our own William Howard Taft, Cincinnati born and bred, an early dean of the UC law school, the 27th president of these United States, a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a judicially robed statue between Blegen Library and the College of Law. This year has marked the publication of another Cincinnati connection to the bathtub, a children’s book entitled President Taft is Stuck in the Tub. Written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, the book chronicles the difficulty tubby Mr. Taft had in accommodating his quite-large frame in the bath. As the book title says, he gets stuck. While presidential duties are delayed, Taft struggles to get out and
resorts to calling upon his wife, Nellie, as well as his entire Cabinet to devise a way of exit (the secretary of war suggests blasting him out). Finally, everyone grabs what they can of the president and with a “squeak, and a slap, and a snap,” he flies out of the bathtub and out the window. Everyone celebrates, a band plays on the White House lawn, and someone has the presence of mind to cover Taft with a robe.
And now the large truth about Taft and his bathtub from Barnett: serving as president from 1908-1912, Taft had a tub, seven feet long and three-and-a-half feet wide, installed in the White House when he took office, built by a New Jersey ironworks firm. In 1909, he had a similar tub installed on the battleship, USs North Carolina, another one on his private yacht, and an even larger tub in his suite at the Hotel Taft, where he lived for a while after his presidency.
But now for the Cincinnati mystery, and it is not a hoax. At one time, the historic Taft home on Auburn Avenue near campus held such a huge tub in the lower level. It was said to be either a copy or the White House original, but either way it could accommodate several normal-sized people. And, I remember seeing it there on more than one occasion. This house where Taft was raised is now part of the National Park Service but a few decades ago when it was being restored as an historic site, it was administered by a friends-of-the-house group. When the park service took over, the tub was no longer there and its whereabouts are unknown today. So somewhere in this fair Cincinnati land, there is a huge bathtub, the true remnant of our heritage of bathing.