Though historians refuse to recognize his accomplishment, H. L. Mencken invented an entire historical genre and method.
H. L. Mencken was not only one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and one of the most important libertarians ever. On December 28, 1917, Mencken made his stamp on the historical profession, inventing what we now call “microhistory,” or a deep‐diving account of a single person or thing. And yet, just a few months past the one hundred year anniversary of this important contribution, no one has yet taken time to remember him for it.
Today, microhistories are much more common and historians have produced hundreds of them, either consciously or unconsciously building on Mencken’s humble example. In the process, we have come to better understand that because individuals are the sole units of action and agency, history really is the cumulative stories of billions of individuals and their billions of different thoughts and actions. Mencken chose as his subject the simple bathtub—an invention that, like any individual person, we might easily forget has a unique, interesting, and powerful history of its own.
Mencken begins: “On December 20 there flitted past us, absolutely without public notice, one of the most important profane anniversaries in American history, to wit, the seventy‐fifth anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into These States. Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day.” But, he does note that a group of somewhat antiquarian young surgeons in the Public Health Service had planned a memorial banquet until Washington “went dry” from the Volstead Act. Then as now, what would a professional conference be without ample supplies of alcohol (preferably open bar)? Academics can be quite dry enough on their own, without congressional support.
Mencken writes that “Bathtubs are so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them.” If they’re so ubiquitous, though, one might wonder where exactly the story is here. More often than not, serious students of history do their readings on the past for critical purposes. Since most of the historical record is a train of horrifying errors; since most great rulers have in fact been mass murderers and slaveholders; since most history has always been written to justify existing regimes—we have a great deal of room for growth. One could easily be swept away in the endless centuries of exploitation, torture, misery, and ignorance. But Mencken’s revolutionary contribution was to show that our actual daily lived experience is not governed by politics, nor any other force from above. The things that make the most significant contributions to our daily lives are the un‐historied people and things. In effect—though he did not yet have such language at his disposal—Mencken’s “A Neglected Anniversary” was a blast against “history from above,” and a daring call for “history from below.”
Mencken anticipated one of the century’s major historiographical swings a full five decades before academia could catch up. In 1917, the historical discipline was split between the elder nationalists and the younger Progressive‐Marxists. Both schools believed history was the clash of large, impersonal forces—nations or classes. By the Cold War period, historians rejected both simplistic nationalism and leftist pessimism for modernity. Mid‐century scholars emphasized the United States’ history of unparalleled liberty, wealth, cultural influence, and raw power as evidence of its special position as one nation among many—but definitely the best. And that might sound good if you’re looking to the past for an uplifting story and are not too concerned with getting the facts right.
In the 1960s and 70s, then, a new generation challenged these rosy portraits. The “New Left” revived the Progressive focus on exploitation and power differentials but tempered their Marxism with hefty doses of methodological Individualism. They were hardly Austro‐libertarians, but neither were they, strictly speaking, true Marxists. The New Left dropped the mid‐century historians’ optimism and Marxist structuralism—the past did not have to develop the way it did, and the world we have is the one given to us by particular people and their particular actions. New Leftists soberly and clearly identified who did what to whom. By de‐emphasizing large, impersonal forces (the methodological crutches of both Marxists and nationalists), first Mencken—and then the New Left—rediscovered the importance of average people, everyday things, the powerless and the marginalized, and all things otherwise squeezed out of standard historical narratives. Real historical change did not actually happen at state dinners or in legislative chambers—real history happens in your kitchen, your car, your office, and yes—even on your toilet or in your bathtub.
Common as they became, there were no bathtubs in America until December 20, 1842. And though Mencken notes that it may—for all he knew—still be in use, we know now that it is not. This pioneer of Tubs was located in Cincinnati, “then a squalid frontier town,” without any discernible traces of proper civilization. One Adam Thompson, a cotton and cereals merchant in the river trade, was a frequent vacationer in England and during one of these visits he learned of a recent invention from Lord John Russell. In 1828 Russell devised a means of treating gout with the use of a shallow tub, an herbal poultice, and a tonic made of equal parts cider vinegar and minced ginger. Russell’s invention had sharp limits on its use, but Thompson saw the potential for simply cleaning the whole body in a larger basin. Drop the pseudo‐scientific medical claptrap, and you have a relaxing, warm pastime. Thompson adapted the aristocratic Russell’s “glorified dishpan” to the needs of America’s frontier adventurers.
Good Jacksonian Democrat that he was, Thompson believed that working people did not necessarily need to bathe regularly, but they did deserve to enjoy base comforts as much as the aristocracy. He made it his life’s mission to spread Lord Russell’s vessel to common people on the frontier, but who would carry all that water? Thompson also believed that no free people should be subjected to such demeaning physical labor simply so another of their number—wealthier and with greater access to leisures—could live even more comfortably. In 1842, Thompson completed work on the first modern bathroom with running water in pipes—no manual labor necessary. In time, his efforts virtually eliminated the need for human transportation of water. Into the very depths of ancient human experience, carrying water with sheer physical, bodily force was a curse to working people across the earth. “Hewers of wood and drawers of water” was a phrase with both biblical and class resonance. Almost everywhere slavery has existed, masters first put their slaves (or indentured servants) to work transporting water. And in trying to make a simple bathtub, Thompson helped destroy this drudgerous scourge almost completely. It was an amazing accomplishment of world historical proportions, and for this alone he deserves to be remembered and celebrated forever.
At his home in Cincinnati (at the corner of what was then Filpot and Hampshire—now 21st and Saratoga), Thompson’s tub,
became the grandfather of all the bathtubs of today. Thompson had it made by James Cullness, the leading Cincinnati cabinetmaker of those days, and its material was Nicaragua mahogany. It was nearly seven feet long and fully four feet wide. To make it water‐tight, the interior was lined with sheet lead, carefully soldered at the joints. The whole contraption weighed about 1,750 pounds, and the floor of the room in which it was placed had to be reinforced to support it. The exterior was elaborately polished.
In this luxurious tub Thompson took two baths on December 20, 1842 — a cold one at 8 a.m. and a warm one some time during the afternoon. The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentlemen to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them and gave an exhibition of its use, and four of them, including a French visitor, Col. Duchanel, risked plunges into it. The next day all Cincinnati — then a town of about 100,000 people — had heard of it, and the local newspapers described it at length and opened their columns to violent discussions of it.
Despite his own commitment to Jacksonian democracy—not to mention the amazing implications of his invention for working people—Thompson’s tub sparked vigorous and even violent public debate. Thompson’s neighbors flooded local papers with letters calling the bathtub “an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic.” Meanwhile, Mencken writes that medical doctors took time from tending their leeches to denounce regular, hot bathing “as dangerous to health and a certain inviter of ‘phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases.’ (I quote from the Western Medical Repository of April 23, 1843.)”
Nonetheless, word of Thompson’s inventions spread to cities in the east. In a stunning and rare example of American Luddism, crowds in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Providence simultaneously besieged their city halls and destroyed the few bathtubs so far installed throughout the cities. The protesters carried makeshift banners with them to announce their cause to any sympathetic observers, and as one banner proclaimed “THE PUBLIC HEALTH BELONGS NOT TO LORDLINGS.” These fiery—and no doubt filthy—mobbers for once found themselves in alliance with the doctors. They thought bathing would cause a public health crisis, another outbreak of Cholera like the one that killed one in twenty Philadelphians in 1822. That disaster was still fresh in most memories, and no self‐respecting Young American radical democrat would allow an aristocratic luxury in the mayor’s mansion or the great merchant’s town home to spread disease across the city. Absolutely convinced by the medical establishment that even one tub was a threat to their children’s lives, mobs in Baltimore and Providence actually clashed physically with state militia. In Providence one officer and two workingmen suffered injuries, but in Baltimore two members of the crowd—George Perkins and Henry Strickland—died from shots fired behind them, from their own ranks.
After the Baltimore “Thompson‐Tub Riot,” most states adopted some measure of regulatory legislation restricting the installation and management of plumbing systems and bathing vessels. As Mencken wrote, “This legislation, I suspect, had some class feeling in it, for the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any save the wealthy; indeed, the common price for installing one in New York in 1845 was $500. Thus the low caste politicians of the time made capital by fulminating against it, and there is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations. But [John F. Simpson’s] invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc, in 1847, cut off this line of attack, and thereafter the bathtub made steady progress.”
Once a cheaper product dissolved the class imagery around bathing, the medical profession fell in line with popular opinion. Mencken writes, “The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849, and a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55 per cent of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more than 20 per cent advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting in 1850 a resolution was formally passed giving the imprimatur of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths followed with a like resolution in 1853.” Most homeopaths were also political radicals—usually affiliated with the Locofoco and Young America movements—and so the newly‐democratized, zinc‐lined tub fit well with their anti‐monopoly preconceptions. “But,” our venerable author continues, “it was the example of President Millard Fillmore that…gave the bathtub recognition and respectability in the United States. While he was still Vice‐President, in March, 1850, he visited Cincinnati on a stumping tour, and inspected the original Thompson tub. Thompson himself was now dead, but his bathroom was preserved by the gentlemen who had bought his house from the estate. Fillmore was entertained in this house and, according to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath in the tub. Experiencing no ill effects, he became an ardent advocate of the new invention, and on succeeding to the Presidency at Taylor’s death, July 9, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, Gen. Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.”
Fillmore was an abolitionist earlier in his life—his was a raucous career in New York politics capped off by a governorship and then a seat in the US Senate before rising to the presidency. His Democratic opponents never let him live down state‐level opposition to slavery, and now that he was president, they used his penchant for bathing to great effect in the partisan press. Political cartoons showed an ostensibly drunk Fillmore (who paid lip service to Prohibitionists while tippling in private) desperately trying to scrub dirt off his skin. The dirt spells out “anti slavery fanaticism,” the tattered rag is a copy of the Whig New York Times, and his bathtub is in the shape of a crown. The abolition charge was not new—Democrats put it to great use in the 1848 campaign—but Fillmore was not at the top of the ticket, and General Taylor was popular enough to pull out a win. Once ensconced in the White House (after Taylor’s untimely death), Millard Fillmore proved much more concerned with keeping his person clean than abolishing slavery. He rammed through the Compromise of 1850 (including a new Fugitive Slave Act to pacify southerners) and in all likelihood prevented a civil war right then and there.
The Democratic opposition—along with the rest of the country—was unhappy even with the compromise measures, and they did not let up on their use of bathtub imagery to tarnish the president’s reputation and reelection hopes. They “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.” Outrage with the president’s indulgent lifestyle perhaps peaked with an angry letter from Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church and governor of the Utah territory (the makeshift, short‐lived independent state of Deseret). Young blasted the president for dooming millions of slaves to sale westward while lounging around the White House in the “porphyry and alabaster bath that had been used by Louis Philippe at Versailles.” And while it was not exactly the same tub owned and operated by the French king, the new American president did have his vessel designed by the same fancy Parisian firm Louis used for his own furniture, Le Ferme a Vasche. “This was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland administration, when the present enameled tub was substituted. The example of the President soon broke down all that remained of the old opposition, and by 1860, according to the newspaper advertisements of the time, every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three.” Just two years after his angry letter, in fact, Brigham Young had the first bathtub west of the Mississippi installed in the territorial governor’s mansion.
So much for the history of the bathtub in America,” Mencken concludes the first microhistory ever written. “One is astonished, on looking into it, to find that so little of it has been recorded. The literature, in fact, is almost nil. But perhaps this brief sketch will encourage other inquirers and so lay the foundation for an adequate celebration of the centennial in 1942.” Mencken never lived to see the bathtub turn 100. He died on December 20, 1941—the bathtub’s 99th birthday. The citizens of Baltimore poured into the streets during his funeral, but not a single historian celebrated the Father of Microhistory.
In graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, I began every single semester of every class I taught with this essay from H.L. Mencken. Every time, students were quite confused. Sure—this is a history of the bathtub, but why exactly do we need to know about this in a course on the American Revolution? Inevitably, they all had the same mystified (perhaps somewhat annoyed) expressions on their faces and the same questions for the student teacher who seemed to be wasting their time. And then we started discussing. Sure enough, none of them had ever really considered that there was such a thing as the history of bathtubs. For them, history is the story of governments and the people who run them. History is about the great big things “we do together” through the state. Perhaps a few of them think in more Biblical terms, but you can safely bet that none of them had ever heard the phrase “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” either. You can’t blame the students, though—For the most part we still don’t teach proper history. We are simply fed information meant to justify one regime or another (depending, of course, on your local school board). But alas, states do not actually do anything, and the importance of Great Men pales in comparison to the pleasures of a hot bath on a cold morning. Though they’ve never heard this from a person in authority before, once this idea has been introduced to their minds, students are unlikely to see the world quite that same, comfortable way ever again.
For our final discussion point, I always save an anecdote from my own undergraduate years. A professor once claimed that the invention of the latex condom (1920) was more important than all of World War One. Now, I believe she was trying to be intentionally provocative for the sake of conversation, but the point is a powerful one given Mencken’s example. Certainly the war claimed millions of lives, set up an even deadlier conflict, and redrew much of the global map in highly problematic ways—but cheap and effective condoms have offered innumerable billions of people immense power of their own lives that simply was not possible before. Family planning, disease prevention, and, well, good times had by all are only the obvious benefits, but spend enough time thinking about it and my professor’s point doesn’t sound so provocative after all. It sounds much more like the kind of history we should have.
H. L. Mencken was the first person to ever write a true microhistory, the first serious writer to take seriously the idea that history is built by common people and common things from below. The people and things which most affect our lives are those most average, abundant, useful, and humble (like pencils or light switches). They do not demand our reverence, our thoughtless regard for Great Men or regurgitations of the hero‐myths imprinted on our brains in school. In 1917, Mencken wrote “A Neglected Anniversary” as a way of escaping the constant miserable news of war. In the process, he taught the world that we need not bow and scrape to governments—they did not give us any of the good things in life, whether bathtubs or condoms, and we really have no need for governments. Microhistory profoundly shifted twentieth century academics’ views of what exactly the stuff of history is. For Mencken, and now for us, history was not a long string of state actions—it is something we all build, every day, with every decision we make and every bath we take.
Anthony Comegna, MD
April F. Day. Flush Times!–A Swirling History of Pipes and Plumbing. Boston: Cambridge University Press. 2015.
Grimstead, David. American Mobbing, 1828–1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.
Joseph Oak. Keeping Clean on the Frontier: A Statistical Survey of Bathrooms and Toilets in Frontier America. Louisville: University Press of Kentucky. 2007.
Henry Louis Mencken. A Mencken Chrestomathy. Vintage Books. 1982. (Originally Published: 1949).