The truth about William Howard Taft’s bathtub

Taft's bathtub

President William Howard Taft’s bathtub has become legendary. Four men could fit inside it and, according to myth, the President got stuck. The famously rotund leader topped out at 340 pounds (he was only 5’11″), and the tub story enhanced his sizeable reputation.

The questions are obvious: is the story true? How big was the tub? And did people know about it at the time?

The truth is more unusual than what we already know, and at least one story is actually more embarrassing—and incredible—than when Taft supposedly got stuck.

Did Taft really get stuck in a bathtub?

First, there’s the biggest Taft myth—that he really got stuck in the White House bathtub. Is it true? Maybe.

Most reports of the incident come from two sources: My Thirty Years Backstairs At The White House, by maid Lillian Rogers Parks, and 42 Years in the White House, by butler and usher Ike Hoover. According to Ray Henderson, a Taft historian, they’re the only source for the bathtub myth.

Whether they’re true or not is the reader’s decision. Taft’s size is an argument for the legend, but his specially built large bathtub (seen above) argues against it. It’s impossible to know if the bathtub story was salacious gossip, a true tidbit of behind-the-scenes bathing, or something in between.

Though the stuck tub story is hazy, we do know that Taft had an extraordinary connection to bathtubs, both in popular culture and in one very embarrassing—and confirmed—real-life incident.

A catty nation goes bathtub crazy

We know about Taft’s tub because the media was bathtub crazy and just as cruel as the meanest late-night comedian. Beat reporters, commentators, and political opponents all loved to talk about the spectacle of Taft in a bathtub.

Taft’s weight was a cultural phenomenon and the bathtub was the perfect tool for commenting on it. The Seattle Star played at being The Daily Show when it claimed scientists were looking into the bathtub’s condition, and The Tacoma Times jokingly expanded Taft’s White House accommodations to an entire Turkish bathhouse. The Los Angeles Herald mocked Taft in an ad and the Chicago Daybook said readers should be thankful Taft didn’t take a bath with them. Even after Taft’s Presidency, The Evening World snarked that President Wilson would have Taft’s bathtub removed from the White House because he was afraid he’d drown. Many other papers made the same joke. It wasn’t just a media phenomenon, either. In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, locals tried to get Taft to strip down and dive in their hot springs just for the spectacle.

As happy as the media was to take cheap shots, it wasn’t pure yellow journalism. There’s a documented history of special bathtubs made for Taft, and the things that happened in them were as notable as the President’s size.

Taft’s special tubs broke world records

Stuck in a tub or not, Taft had special bathtubs made, modified, and moved so he could fit inside.

The most famous Taft tub was installed on the USS North Carolina in 1909, and it probably ended up at the White House. Specially made by Mott manufacturing, it was 50 percent larger than the normal tub and weighed a full ton. They claimed that it was the largest ever made. In 1912, another “Taft-sized” bathtub was installed, as well as one on the USS Mayflower (which he then proceeded to crack). The next year, the Taft Hotel (near Yale) met the outgoing President Taft with a new specially built bathtub that was eight feet long, four feet wide, and four feet deep. Taft may have even had a special bathtub before the Presidency, when he was Secretary of War.

That long history with bathtubs yielded at least one story that Taft himself confirmed—and that may be even more bizarre than getting stuck.

Taft’s most embarrassing bathtime story

Taft may never have gotten stuck in a tub, but he did push one to the limits—and beyond.

Reported in the New York Tribune (and repeated in many other papers), it happened on June 18, 1915, two years after Taft left the Presidency. He was visiting the Pennsylvania Bankers’ Association in Cape May, New Jersey, and after a long day in Philadelphia he checked into his room at the Hotel Cape May. Unfortunately,  there wasn’t a Taft-sized bathtub to accommodate the former President, and that was a problem.

Taft got into the bathtub anyway, but he failed to guess exactly how much water would be displaced. Water splashed over the edges and onto the floor, where it then dripped on the guests in the dining room downstairs. Yes, President Taft’s used bathwater dripped on the heads of the people he was visiting.

A plumber rushed upstairs to investigate the wet spot in the ceiling. The plumber found Taft’s room and told the former President that he’d filled his tub too deeply.

“I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then I venture to say there won’t be any overflow.” -President Taft, referring to the ocean

Perhaps most impressively of all, Taft took his bathtub troubles in stride. As he boarded the train the next morning, he gazed at the ocean and joked, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then I venture to say there won’t be any overflow.”

Taft’s better bathtub legacy

How should we remember Taft and his bathtubs? First, he should have a slightly healthier reputation. Though Taft already worked out when he was President, he shed 70 pounds once he left office. He also cemented his political legacy through his appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a feat no other politician has pulled off.

But perhaps Taft’s real bathtub legacy should be more substantial than the bathtubs he got stuck in and overflowed. During his short Presidency, Taft accomplished a lot, including busting 99 trusts. He dramatically changed the economic landscape and law of America for the next hundred years. Taft took on many giant industries, but the most relevant one was a tiny group that had steadily inflated prices.

What was the trust Taft busted in his final year as President?

You guessed it: the bathtub trust.

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