Mencken’s Dirty Joke

On this day in 1917, H. L. Mencken's "A Neglected Anniversary," a hoax article honoring the American invention of the bathtub, was published in the New York Evening Mail. Mencken's lifelong campaign to deride and derail Main Street America -- the "booboisie" -- had a number of easy victories, but this joke succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and in Swiftian proportions.

 

In the omniscient tone of newspaper editorials, Mencken's article first laments that the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bathtub could come and go without tribute: "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." As reprimand to a thankless nation, Mencken proceeds to review the tub's invention (in Cincinnati, of course) and early history, the prominent episode being the "Great Bathtub Debate" which swept the nation in midcentury. This found the pro-Tubbers narrowly victorious over an alliance of cultural watchdogs, who had proclaimed the new technology an enemy of the pioneer spirit and robust health:

 

Late in 1843, for example, the Philadelphia Common Council considered an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November 1 and March 15, and it failed of passage by but two votes. During the same year the legislature of Virginia laid a tax of $30 a year on all bathtubs that might be set up, and in Hartford, Providence, Charleston and Wilmington (Del.) special and very heavy water rates were levied upon those who had them. Boston, very early in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.

To Mencken's amazement and delight, this record of the triumphant American tub was swallowed whole. Newspapers and radio stations celebrated yet another example of Yankee progress; the "facts" were duly incorporated into reference books; the hygiene industry touted the happy day; the White House calendar makers, noting Mencken's claim that Millard Fillmore (chosen for his name?) was the first president to have a tub installed, marked down Tub Day. Even when Mencken tried to confess that he had been, once again, having fun with the squeaky-clean aspects of the body politic -- a portion of which, in WWI, had placed him in the "dirty Huns" camp -- it took years for some to admit that it had all been a joke.

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

 

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