This Day In Literary History
On December 28th, 1917, A Neglected Anniversary, the classic satirical essay by the legendary American essayist, satirist, and journalist H.L. Mencken, was published in the New York Evening Mail.
The essay appeared to be a legitimate article on the American invention of the bathtub, but it was really a hoax - a practical joke on the American press and one of many classic Mencken jabs at the American bourgeoisie, which he liked to call the booboisie.
In a narrative parodying the style of an editorial, Mencken chided the public for failing to recognize such an important American cultural event as the anniversary of the invention of the bathtub.
"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," he lamented. To forget such an important anniversary was downright unpatriotic!
The nation had simply forgotten that the very first bathtubs appeared in Cincinnati. Why? Mencken believed it was because the bathtub had been denounced by the watchdogs of society.
These snobs had decried the venerable vessel as "an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic."
The bathtub was also denounced by the American medical establishment, which believed that bathing in a tub caused "phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases."
In a (seemingly) thoroughly researched account of the Great Bathtub Debate, Mencken observed:
The noise of the controversy soon reached other cities, and in more than one place medical opposition reached such strength that it was reflected in legislation. 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in 1845, made bathing unlawful except upon medical advice, but the ordinance was never enforced and in 1862 it was repealed.
Mencken was surprised and delighted when newspapers across the country fell for his phony article on the history of the American bathtub and republished it. Not only that, the "facts" in the article were added to reference books and touted by the health and hygiene industry.
The makers of calendars for the White House observed Mencken's anniversary of the bathtub and his claim that Millard Fillmore had been the first U.S. President to install one at the White House.
Eight years after he wrote the bathtub article, Mencken decided it was time to end the joke and expose the hoax. He published a confession, but some people believed that was the real hoax, and his phony bathtub anniversary continued to be commemorated.
Mencken had written A Neglected Anniversary as a satirical slap at both the gullibility of the American booboisie and the American press, which had been acting as part of the government's propaganda machine.
In 1917, when the article was published, the United States had entered World War I. Unlike the second world war, the U.S. had not been attacked. Many Americans were apprehensive about entering the Great War to fight Germany and her allies.
So, for propaganda purposes, the press smeared everything German. American citizens of German descent were denounced as "dirty Huns" and their patriotism was questioned. Even prominent German-American writers like H.L. Mencken and his close friend Theodore Dreiser were denounced.
The propaganda machine went to such absurd lengths that sauerkraut, the popular German side dish, had been renamed "liberty cabbage" by the U.S. government. Sound familiar? Remember "freedom fries?"
When the press smeared him for daring to admit that he wasn't ashamed of his German heritage and that he admired German culture, Mencken had enough.
A Neglected Anniversary was his revenge on the press for being part of the propaganda machine instead of the objective journalists they were supposed to be.
What did Mencken think of Germany during the second World War? When Hitler first came to power, Mencken dismissed him as a buffoon. When the Nazis began persecuting Jews, Mencken compared Hitler's Third Reich to the American Ku Klux Klan.
And, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to admit Jewish refugees into the United States, Mencken blasted him publicly. He was one of the first American journalists to speak out against the persecution of Jews in Germany at a time when even the New York Times remained silent on the issue.
H.L. Mencken died in 1956 at the age of 75. One can only imagine what he'd think of the times we live in now, and of media outlets like the Fox News Channel that serve the propaganda machine, presenting lies as truths.
Quote Of The Day
"A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier." - H.L. Mencken
Today's video features a rare radio interview with H.L. Mencken - the only recording of his voice known to exist. Enjoy!