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What does the development of the bathtub have to do with how we think about history?

Welcome to the first installment of Liberty Chronicles!

Everything you were taught about why the world is the way it is was planted in your mind. What does the development of the bathtub have to do with how we think about history? On first glance, it might seem to contribute very little. It is, after all, only a mundane and humble tub.

Further Reading:

For a history of the history of the bathtub, see: Wendy McElroy, “The Bathtub, Mencken, and War” https://​fee​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​t​h​e​-​b​a​t​h​t​u​b​-​m​e​n​c​k​e​n​-​a​n​d​-war/



Anthony: Practically everything we know is taught to us for a specific reason. The people who instruct us over our lives are many and various. You get knowledge about the world from a huge number of sources over a lifetime. Early in your life in particular, children are sponges and we pick up information from everywhere.
Your parents, your teachers, television, [00:00:30] advertisements all over the place, toys, the places we travel to. Everybody is constantly teaching children something.
This is Liberty Chronicles. A project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
Today we’re really going to talk about that process of infiltration. What this means. [00:01:00] The fact that practically everything that we’re taught as a matter of course in school, as a matter of building our knowledge about the world. Practically everything that we’re taught is planted in our minds for a very particular reason. It serves individual purposes.
Now our knowledge about the past is particularly important. This is a history show. For our purposes, we’re really going to focus on that world of the past. [00:01:30] Trying to figure out what happened in the past. Who did what to whom. What it means for us in the present, and for us moving forward in the future. And that knowledge that we accumulate about the world before the present moment, essentially, which is the broad scope of history. It’s everything that’s happened before the present moment. That’s a huge wealth of information to draw upon, to learn about what the state of our existence [00:02:00] is, and how we can manipulate it to better suit our purposes.
History is also interesting, I think, because not only does it inform us so much in so many ways about the world as we know it, but it really suggests alternatives to us as well. We know that the world did not have to turn out the way that it did. It could have turned out any number of different ways. I don’t want to get too much into physics, but [00:02:30] as I understand it, some people actually think that there are alternative universes, where every decision somebody makes, essentially creates an alternative history.
Maybe we can’t do the experimental physics here on the show. I’m certainly not equipped for that, but we can talk about the alternatives that real actors in history presented their world. Then those alternatives, whether they are social world views, political philosophies, or cultural [00:03:00] contributions, these kinds of things are often forcibly submerged, or not pursued for particular reasons.
Those are the kinds of things that we need to uncover when we’re thinking about the past, for a variety of reasons. Now, what we want to do here, is take this idea that our knowledge about the past really, really, seriously shapes our understanding of the present. Perhaps and probably I think, [00:03:30] the most significant factor in establishing what we think should be done with our own world, it’s our knowledge of the past. That’s a point I’ve heard plenty of people comment on. Just about human nature, that it seems as though we form our opinions of the present, based almost entirely on our knowledge of the past.
We are imitative creatures in that sense. Few of our thoughts or actions are truly independent, new creations. [00:04:00] They’re usually based on something, modeling something that we’ve already seen in the past. We want to take this idea that the past is incredibly important to understanding the present of the future, and really interrogate what that means for us, as consumers of historical knowledge.
Well once again, what we know about history, generally gets taught to us by individuals, or by institutions. What we want to do is figure out, well why [00:04:30] do those individuals who are teaching you history in high school, and on television, and so on, why do they want you to know what they’re teaching you? Seems like an important question, but it’s also not something that we ask very often. Aristotle once said that the most important question you can basically ever ask about something, is why it happened.
Yet it’s a question that so often goes overlooked. Why do we know what we know about the past? [00:05:00] Well, I’m going to pause it, as a working hypothesis here, that I’m sure most people can sympathize with. The reason we know what we know about the past, is that that narrative that we’re all taught in school, whatever form it might have taken specifically for you, that general narrative is selected on some higher levels of decision making than normal people [00:05:30] have access to. Let’s say your state school board.
They want you to know particular historian’s views of the world. They go through and they select textbooks that distill the field down into a handy student’s guide. Those historians have gone through, and combed through the literature, and reproduced it in a way that’s helpful to students of different age groups. Then the school boards choose among the textbooks. [00:06:00] Then the textbooks get distributed to various schools throughout the state.
The way it actually works is, that historians do what they do. They are functionaries in this process. They go ahead and do their research and do their writing. They say what they will about the past. Then those with actual political power, at the school board level, choose among those narratives, which suits their purposes best. Whatever that might be. [00:06:30] Maybe they just think, “This is really the story of American history that people should know. This is what I want kids to think about America. I want them to feel good when they read American history.” Perhaps the people on the school board are [Straussians 00:06:46], and they want to lie to people by telling them a particular version of American history, because then that will make it easier to manipulate people and have them basically do what you want them to do, from your position on the perch [00:07:00] of political theorists.
But whatever level it is, at which we’re learning history and having it taught at us in a sense, if we merely blindly follow that vision of the past that’s taught at us, we’re basically seating our own power of interrogation of the present. We stop questioning why exactly the world is the way it is, and we simply accept the word [00:07:30] of authority as given. That explanation essentially becomes good enough, and history is a long series of events, as dictated by authority figures.
I’m a historian, and I tell people that sometimes when occasion calls for it. The thinking seems to be that that means you sit in a library a lot with stacks of books and a magnifying glass. But really, doing the work of a historian is simply interrogating the past for yourself. [00:08:00] Looking at the record for yourself and coming up with your own narrative of events, and analysis of what it means for us in the present.
So what we want to do in this podcast, is take that power into our own hands. If dominant narratives of history tend to support existing regimes, now by now as we’ll discuss, by now that is not so much the case. Not as much as it used to be. Historians are more active in criticizing the status [00:08:30] quo.
But dominant narratives generally tend to support existing regimes or social structures, or institutions. The history produced by a wide variety of independent academics, tends to be functional for those in power, in the sense that you don’t need to direct it, but you can gain a lot of benefit by selecting from these various academic functionaries [00:09:00] who produce narratives. Selecting narratives that work advancing your broader world view, and that’s exactly what again, people on school boards do.
So these people on places like the Texas school board for example, are extremely powerful, because Texas buys so many textbooks. The book producers tend to market to that audience and end up producing huge amounts of whatever texts Texas chooses for their kids. So [00:09:30] those books again, proliferate throughout the country and really end up becoming what we know about American history or world history, or whatever the subject might be.
But we have to remember is that those people who choose those textbooks want you to know a particular set of ideas about history. They have their own private, personal, individual reasons, for choosing the narratives that they do. The only way really to break this mental trap, [00:10:00] where your mind is subject to the whims of others and their goals, the only way to break this trap is to learn for yourself. How to explore and interrogate the past.
By doing that, by casting the mere authority of historians aside, you become your own historian. You become armed with your own theory and methods and so on, of figuring out exactly what happened to make the world the way it is. And how perhaps we could revive some alternatives, advanced in the [00:10:30] past. Or build upon advances handed down to us, and improve the world in the future.
I think that’s what most people want to do with history. Our goal for this podcast will really be to help you do that. To become your own historian.
I want to move to talking about a wonderful article but H.L. Mencken, from back in World War I. Most [00:11:00] listeners I hope, have heard of H.L. Mencken. If you haven’t, go ahead and look him up. He was a terribly important writer overall. One of the most widely recognized and important, influential, popular writers of the 20th century. By that, I mean he wrote for a popular audience. He was absolutely brilliant.
This article that I want to first read through, and then we’re going to discuss it, is H.L. Mencken’s history of the bathtub. It’s called A Neglected Anniversary.

Reader: [00:11:30] A Neglected Anniversary, by H.L. Mencken.
On December 20, there fled it past us, absolutely without public notice. One of the most important profane anniversaries in American history. To it, the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub into these states. Not a plumber fired a salute, or hung up a flag. Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day. Bathtubs [00:12:00] are so common today, that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them.
They are familiar to nearly everyone on all incorporated town, and most of the large cities. It is unlawful to build a dwelling house without putting them in, even on a farm. They’ve begun to come into use. And yet, the first American bathtub was installed and dedicated so recently as December 20th, 1842.
And for all I know to the contrary, it may still be in existence [00:12:30] and in use. Curiously enough, the scene of its setting up, was Cincinnati. Then a new frontier town. Even today, surely no leader in culture, one Adam Thompson’s involvement in the grain trade frequently took him to England.
In that country during the 30s, he acquired the habit of bathing. The bathtub was still a novelty in England. It had been introduced in 1828 by Lord John Russell. Its use was yet confined to a small class of enthusiasts. [00:13:00] More over, the English bathtub was a puny and inconvenient contrivance. And filling and emptying it required the attendance of a servant. Taking a bath indeed, was a rather heavy ceremony.
Lord John, at 1835 was said to be the only man in England who had yet come to doing it every day. Thompson, who was a [inaudible 00:13:22] fancy. He later devised the machine that is still used for bagging hams and bacon, conceived the notion that the English bathtub [00:13:30] would be much improved if it were made large enough to admit the whole body of an adult man. And if its supply of water, instead of being hauled to the scene by a maid, were admitted by pipes from a central reservoir and run off by the same means.
Accordingly, early in 1842, he set about building the first modern bathroom in his Cincinnati home. A large house with [dork 00:13:52] pillars, standing near what is now, the corner of Monastery in Orleans Street. In his new [00:14:00] luxurious tub, Thompson took two baths on December 20th, 1842. A cold one at 8:00 A.M., and a warm one sometime during the afternoon.
The warm water, heated by the kitchen fire, reached a temperature of 105 degrees. On Christmas day, having a party of gentleman to dinner, he exhibited the new marvel to them, and gave an exhibition of its use. Four of them, including a French visitor, Colonel [inaudible 00:14:26], risked plunges into it. The next [00:14:30] day, all Cincinnati.
Then a town of about 100,000 people had heard of it. A local newspapers described it at length, and opened their columns to violent discussion of it. The thing in fact, became a public matter. Before long, there was bitter and double‐​headed opposition to the new invention, which had been promptly imitated by several other wealthy Cincinnatians. On the one hand, it was denounced as an epicurean, and obnoxious toy from England. Designed to corrupt [00:15:00] the Democratics [implicity 00:15:00] of the Republic.
On the other hand, it was a tact by the medical faculty as dangerous to health. See, western medical repository of April 23rd, 1843. The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities. Late in 1843 for example, Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance, prohibiting bathing between November 1st and March 15th. And it failed of passage, by but two votes.
During the same year, the legislature [00:15:30] of Virginia, laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be setup, and in Hartford providence, Charleston, Wilmington Delaware, special and very heavy water rates were levied up upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice. But the ordinance was never enforced.
In 1862 it was repealed. This legislation I suspect, had some class [00:16:00] feeling in it. For the Thompson bathtub was plainly too expensive to be owned by any say the wealthy. Thus the low‐​cast politicians of the time, made capital by fulminating against it. There is even some suspicion of political bias in many of the early medical denunciations.
But the invention of the common pine bathtub, lined with zinc in 1947, cut off this line of attack. Thereafter, the bathtub made steady progress. [00:16:30] After this medical opposition began to collapse, and among other eminent physicians, doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, declared for the bathtub, and invigorously opposed the lingering movement against it in Boston.
The American Medical Association held its annual meeting in Boston in 1849. And a poll of the members in attendance showed that nearly 55% of them now regarded bathing as harmless, and that more that 20% advocated it as beneficial. At its meeting at 1850, [00:17:00] the resolution was formally passed, giving the imprimitor of the faculty to the bathtub. The homeopaths with a like resolution in 1853.
But it was the example of President Millard Fillmore, that even more than the grudging medical approval, 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. According to Chamberlain, his biographer, took a bath [00:17:30] 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 9th, 1850, he instructed his secretary of war, General Charles M. Conrad, to invite tenders for the construction of a bathtub in the White House.
This action for a moment, revived the old controversy. Its opponents made much of the fact that there was no bathtub at Mount Vernon, or at Monticello. And that [00:18:00] all the presidents and other magnificos of the past, had got along without any such monarchial luxuries, used by Lewis Phillip. A thick cast iron tub was installed early in 1851, and remained in service in the White House until the first Cleveland Administration, when the present enamel 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 [00:18:30] in New York had a bathtub. Some had two, and even three. So much for the history of the bathtub in America.
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.

Anthony: [00:19:00] To that’s H.L. Mencken’s brief history of the bathtub. His neglected anniversary. Now I want to talk about, what exactly does this have to teach us about history? Every time I taught a college course, I started the first class with this reading. Students are befuddled by that sometimes, because it’s a very weird little piece. And you think, “Well what does this really have to do with history, again? This [00:19:30] … It is a history of the bathtub. I’ll give you that. It tells us information about the bathtub, but why are we reading this in a history class? I don’t really underst‐, shouldn’t we talking about the American Revolution or something? Getting onto it?” It seems weird.
At first glance it might seem like it contributes very little. It’s just about the mundane humble bathtub. But it’s really an essay that’s rich with suggestion about what we can do with the discipline of history. If we release ourselves [00:20:00] from this idea, that history has to come to us from above. It’s the story of all the really big people doing big things. Your teacher or your professor, or this academic whoever it is, gives you history from above. They just tell you what happened and fill your mind with their particular narrative of the past.
Well when we do things Mencken’s way, and we challenge what we’re told, by looking [00:20:30] at what we’re not told, it leads us some really interesting areas. So for example, historians, it’s been trendy lately in the last couple of decades to move away from national‐​level histories. Things that tell us about particular nation states, and relatively small groups of people and their political histories. Shifting away from that being the general pattern of historical knowledge, to global [00:21:00] history, world history, big history. Where you look extremely broadly at societies across space and throughout time, and perhaps try to draw some generalizations.
But really the exercise of history today by most academics I think is … It’s really supposed to be a process of learning how to interrogate the world better and better. So when you’re again, trying with this podcast, to do that for your own, [00:21:30] always think about subjects like Mencken’s bathtub. The things that you don’t know have history. That you have assumed have just come with the world that has been given to you, and there’s nothing really particularly important to tell about its origins.
Chances are, that’s not true. And there’s some really important interesting things just below the surface. So let’s talk about this Mencken essay. Bathtubs are incredibly important. That probably doesn’t [00:22:00] need to be said. But why don’t they then have a history? These common everyday objects all around us, we don’t consider them the subjects of history.
I’m looking at microphones. I’m looking at chairs. I’m looking at tables and a cup of coffee right now. Every one on paper, all of these things are the proper subjects of history. Understanding how we got these inventions, these products. Where they came from. How people over millennia … think about Leonard [00:22:30] Read’s I, Pencil. No one of us could create a pencil from scratch, without society somehow. Whether it’s through the structure production or even just the knowledge of what a pencil is, and how to make all the stuff to make it. We need language. We need society to do practically anything.
It’s suggested at least, that the bathtub might well have never caught on, and people perhaps would still not be using it, if it weren’t for important individuals like Oliver [00:23:00] Wendell Holmes, the doctor, giving his okay to it. Some people gradually over time, even saying, “Yeah. This is actually probably good for you to bathe.” At first doctors were worried about it. Thought it would be dirty, not very sanitary.
But then doctors started to warm up to it. They studied it a little more, get used to it. And then here comes the president to save the day. Millard Fillmore. The authority par excellence in America. Even at the time, Americans [00:23:30] worshiped the president to some degree. They had a huge deal of respect for him, the kind maybe we’ve not inclined to anymore.
But the president was a big, big figure in the day. His word was very important. His style and habits, his fashions were followed by a good number of people. So Fillmore puts a bathtub in the White House, and suddenly people are like, “You know what, okay. I guess we can go ahead with this.” When the [00:24:00] president accepts it, it no longer seems like a foreign, weird, English aristocratic device, to separate yourself from the common rabble. It seems more like something that every American can have access to. Just like our political system offers the opportunity to express the power and influence of the individual through the ballot.
Here the president [00:24:30] symbolically is representing people, accepting new forms of culture and technology. But it does take that authority figure to give his go‐​ahead for people to finally embrace something, that really is so obvious, so mundane, and so ubiquitous today.
But here’s the thing, there’s a little catch to this Mencken story. It’s all fake. It’s entirely fake. Made up. Fantasy. [00:25:00] Fiction. Mencken wrote it in the middle of World War I, the U.S. entry into World War I. Basically it was a joke, as a way to write something fun in war time. Which he points out, was not always very easy to write something fun during war time. So he decided to play with his readers a bit, and write this completely fake history of the bathtub, and this face anniversary to celebrate.
[00:25:30] I’d say don’t feel to badly if you did fall for it, because most students do too. Probably 95% or more. Occasionally there’s one intrepid young person who goes and does the research beforehand and finds out that it’s a hoax. But most just read the text. They read what Mencken says and we have this great discussion about how his point of view on history could be important and contribute something.
And then they find it was all a lie, [00:26:00] and he really contributed nothing but fiction. They’re mystified. It’s a great thing to do in the first class, because they’re forced to sit there and confront the fact that they just all believed it, simply because somebody in authority told them to believe it. Now Mencken, he has his citations of these different journals, and he has all this very specific information. It looks legitimate. But it’s [00:26:30] completely made up, fabricated history, for the specific purpose of just messing around with people. And most people fall for it.
I’m just going to read Mencken’s own intro to this essay from a Mencken Chrestomathy. This is years later, he’s reflecting on this article. He says, “This was first printed in the New York evening mail, December 28th, 1917. The success of this idle hoax, [00:27:00] done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature, and into standard reference books. It had of course, no truth in it whatsoever. And I more than once, confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity. For example, in Prejudices Sixth Series 1927.”
“Moreover, it was exposed and denounced [00:27:30] by various other men. For example, Vilhjalmur Stefansson the arctic explorer, and a great connoisseur of human credulity, in his adventures in New York 1936. But it went on prospering, and in fact is still prospering. Scarcely a month goes by, that I do not find the substance of it reprinted. Not as foolishness, but as fact. Not only in newspapers, but in official documents and [00:28:00] other works of the highest pretensions.”
So this fake history of the bathtub was repeated over and over again by authoritative sources, as the true history of the bathtub in America, even though Mencken even said after publishing it, over and over again, “No, no, no, no, no. I made it up. Aren’t you listening? I made it up.” Still, people didn’t listen.
Apparently it was cited well into the 90s. It might even be the case that [00:28:30] if some particularly bored journalist or blogger out there sets out to write a history of the bathtub, that they will end up citing Mencken to this very day. Because if you look it up, you read it, and you don’t bother looking too much more deeply into it, you’ll go ahead and accept what authority has planted in your mind.
So people accept Mencken’s history as true, simply [00:29:00] because someone wrote it down and told them about it. We’re taught to revere whatever it is we read in books. We’re taught to accept the past as it’s given to us, as it’s taught at us. We’re taught to just accept therefore, the world that we have. And the one that those in power want to create for the future. When we take the creation and the critique of history into our own hands, we empower ourselves. We take that power back [00:29:30] from people who have surreptitiously filched it from us. And we return it to our own individual stock of agency, if you will.
That’s the spirit in which we embark upon our studies. And that’s the keystone message of this podcast. Our task will not be to teach you the content of history, but to help you better teach yourself. So then, let’s be off now, and set about it. Welcome to the show.

[00:30:00] Liberty Chronicles is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.