On December 20, 1917, writer H. L. Mencken wrote an 1,800-word essay “A Neglected Anniversary,” detailing the arrival of the bathtub in the United States. Mencken meticulously described the tub’s debut in 1842, explaining how the bathroom fad had caught on only after Millard Fillmore installed one in the White House. By the 20th century, Mencken explained, the momentous anniversary had fallen into obscurity. “Not a plumber fired a salute,” he lamented. “Not a governor proclaimed a prayer.”
There’s a good reason why. Mencken had made the whole thing up. The humorist figured everyone would see through the ruse, and he later wrote that the article was “harmless fun” meant to distract readers from World War I. “It never occurred to me it would be taken seriously,” he wrote.
But printing the piece in the Evening Mail gave Mencken’s little joke extra credibility, and he was stunned by how the story snowballed. Within a few years, it had been referenced in “learned journals” and cited “on the floor of Congress.” The tale became so pervasive that the Boston Herald ran an article in 1926 debunking it under the headline “The American Public Will Swallow Anything.” Three weeks later, the same paper cited Mencken’s bathtub origin tale as fact.
Mencken tried for years to set the record straight, but his efforts were futile. People were more interested in hearing about President Fillmore’s tub than hearing the truth. Even today, the story resurfaces from time to time: In 2008, it was featured in a Kia ad, which hailed Fillmore as “best remembered as the first president to have a running water bathtub.” His time in office was so mediocre that the poor guy can’t even be remembered for something he actually did.