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What a 1917 prank about the history of the bathtub can tell us about modern hoaxes

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When bathtubs first came to the United States in 1843, an article published in 1917 claimed, they created a bitter controversy: Some people found them too decadent, others too unhealthy. Cities tried to ban bathing. It took President Millard Fillmore installing a bathtub in the White House for them to become widely accepted.

The article, by journalist H.L. Mencken, was fascinating. It was also completely false. Mencken had made the whole thing up, partly for entertainment during the bleak days of World War I, but also to make a point about how quickly a lie can become conventional wisdom.

That's a lesson that still feels relevant 99 years later. And it shows that false "facts" went viral, and news stories were aggregated and passed along, long before Twitter, or chain emails, or the internet, or even the concept of a virus itself. Stephen Colbert might have come up with term "truthiness" — something that feels true, even if it isn't. But 80 years earlier, Mencken was already mocking it.

The fascinating (and false) facts about the history of the bathtub

Here are a few of the "facts" Mencken wrote about the history of the bathtub — a history that, when he wrote it, dealt with a time only 75 years in the past:

  • A British aristocrat, Lord John Russell, had invented the bathtub in 1828, but by 1835 was said to be "the only man in England" who bathed every day.
  • The first American bathtub was installed on December 20, 1842, in Cincinnati. It was lined with lead and weighed 1,750 pounds.
  • Bathtubs, after their introduction, became very controversial — pundits held either they were an undemocratic invention, or an unhealthy one.
  • Philadelphia and Boston both tried to outlaw bathing based on health concerns. But Mencken argued that the real reason was based on income inequality: Rich could afford bathtubs, and so the poor were inherently suspicious of them.
  • Eventually, President Millard Fillmore became a devotee of bathing and installed a bathtub at the White House. This stirred up the whole controversy over again: "Opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello, and that all the Presidents and other magnificoes of the past had got along without any such monarchical luxuries."

Long before the internet made aggregation commonplace, it was common practice for newspapers to reprint each other's articles. And just like today, virality built on itself. Stories that proved popular continued to be reprinted because they were popular. A list of "maxims to guide a young man" was reprinted by at least 28 newspapers in the mid-1800s.

And so Mencken's story started to spread, accepted as if it were true. First it appeared in other newspapers, then by medical journals; eventually the "facts" that he invented were cited on the floor of Congress.

Eight years after the initial article was published, Mencken confessed. He'd made the whole thing up. "All I care to do today is to reiterate, in the most solemn and awful terms, that my history of the bathtub, printed on Dec. 28, 1917, was pure buncombe," he wrote. "If there were any facts in it they got there accidentally and against my design. But today the tale is in the encyclopedias. History, said a great American soothsayer, is bunk."

The lessons of the bathtub story are still true

Mencken claims he didn't know this would happen, and that he found the bathtub story patently ridiculous when he wrote it. But just as people today get outraged about stories from The Onion that are meant as satire, somebody always ends up falling for it.

That hasn't changed. We're just better at quantifying the phenomenon. A study published in the journal PLOS One recently found that it takes seven times longer to debunk a false rumor on Twitter than to prove a true one.

Mencken was making a point not just about silly rumors or satirical jokes, but about history itself, and how quickly a statement goes from word of mouth to conventional wisdom.

He mentioned a more serious example: the Republican convention of 1920, where future president Warren G. Harding got the nomination through negotiations in a smoke-filled room. Two different stories circulated about who was responsible. Mencken put forward a third: There was no mastermind, just delegates overheating in a hot summer who wanted to get home.

And Mencken knew that people cling to the truth years before psychological research found that debunking myths can backfire.

"For years past American historians have been investigating the orthodox legends. Almost all of them turn out to be blowsy nonsense. Yet they remain in the school history books and every effort to get them out causes a dreadful row, and those who make it are accused of all sorts of treasons and spoils," he wrote. "The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes."

Nothing proves that more conclusively than the bathtub story. Despite Mencken's disavowal of it, it continued to circulate for decades. In 2001, the Washington Post was still repeating the myth, which it had to retract.