Clearing up the William Howard Taft bathtub myth
It’s the 100th anniversary of the end of the William Howard Taft presidency and Constitution Daily looks into a claim that has dogged the 27th president for generations: Was the leader of the free world actually stuck in the White House bathtub?
The answer appears to be no, unless some eyewitness account or evidence surfaces from our readers who want to come clean about Taft.
Taft was one of the most interesting, intellectual, and versatile presidents. Not only was “Big Bill” a big guy, he was also a chief justice of the United States, a wrestler at Yale, a reformer, a peace activist, and a baseball fan. During Taft’s presidency, the 16th Amendment was passed (which established the income tax), the Panama Canal was mostly finished, and Taft proved he may have been the best presidential dancer since George Washington.
And in a bitter fight with Theodore Roosevelt, Taft saved the Republican Party in 1912 by taking on a doomed re-election campaign as an act to keep the party intact.
But today, Taft is best remembered at the president who was so large that he got stuck in the White House bathtub.
Constitution Daily started researching President Taft when news broke that the Washington Nationals chose a Taft replica as the team’s fifth racing mascot for baseball games. The team said its Teddy Roosevelt mascot lobbied for Taft, which seemed suspicious amid all the bad blood between TR and Big Bill.
So while searching through some primary research documents, something about the tub story wasn’t ringing true.
We did find that President Taft and his Justice Department were involved in breaking up the Bathtub Trust, a cartel of porcelain makers who were bent on creating a price-fixing monopoly that controlled bathtubs and toilets. Also, President Taft had an extra-large tub in the White House to accommodate his size. The tub remained in the White House until it was being removed during a renovation.
The super-tub came from J. L. Mott and Sons pottery in New York. In 2009, the National Archives had a replica tub on display, along with the order for the original tub.
But in consulting newspaper archives from the time period, looking at a document from the Archives exhibit, and searching a definitive 1,000-page Taft biography from the 1930s, the entire “stuck in a tub” story appears to be pretty leaky.
The “smoking tub,” if you will, is that famous picture of four men sitting in Taft’s tub.
The documents from the National Archives and several contemporary newspapers show that the giant tub was ordered by the government and used by Taft several months before he became president and started taking baths at the White House.
In December 1908, navy leaders learned that the president-elect would sail to Panama late in January, before his March inauguration. The Panama Canal was still under construction at the time. An order for an extra-large tub was submitted by the captain of the U.S.S. North Carolina on December 21, 1908. Reports of the tub made it to the newspapers in January.
On January 19, 1909, a story appeared in the press about a “great bath tub” on the North Carolina, adding the comment that “there was no reason why” the tub wouldn’t be sent along to the White House on March 4, 1909. A picture of the giant tub appeared in the journal Engineering Review in February 1909 and it is the same picture often seen, with four men sitting inside the tub.
The article appears to be an expanded version of the newspaper story and it detailed how Taft dealt with bathtub-size problems: He used a shower.
The common story, often repeated, is that Taft got stuck in the existing White House tub and a new one was installed, and the four men in the photos were the bathtub installers. In fact, the men were photographed well before the 7-foot-long tub made it to the White House.
And it seems that wasn’t the only large tub that Taft had at his disposal. There was press coverage when an extra-large tub was sent to be installed on the presidential yacht Mayflower in 1910.
So without conclusive evidence, how did the apparent urban legend about Taft start?
There is a well-known photo of Taft’s oversized White House tub, and the fact that it cracked. Also, there is a longstanding rumor in Erie, Pennsylvania, that Taft was stuck in a tub in a 1911 incident when he was staying at a local mansion.
And in her 1961 book, “My Thirty Years Backstairs At The White House,” seamstress and maid Lillian Rogers Parks mentions the bathtub incident. But her mother worked for the Tafts; Lillian started at the White House during the Hoover administration.
But in the end, was Tubgate just another example of dirty politics?
Roosevelt’s supporters made fun of Taft’s weight in the bitter 1912 election. The story could have grown from there.
With a presidential campaign in 2016 possibly featuring a heavy-set candidate, the power of an urban legend shouldn’t be underestimated.
Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
Editor’s Note: The word “sale” was changed to the correct homophone, “sail.”
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