Article

Did William Howard Taft Really Get Stuck in the White House Bathtub?

The bathtub story might be the most famous thing about Taft's presidency, but is it true?

Published Nov 26, 2023

 (Bettmann / Getty Images)
Image Via Bettmann / Getty Images

Perhaps the most lasting moment of William Howard Taft's U.S. presidency took place in his bathtub. It certainly wasn't any of his political activities — even his official White House biography calls him a "poor politician." The same article suggests that Taft himself didn't care too much about the presidency, preferring his later position as chief justice of the United States:

"I don't remember that I was ever the President."

This leaves his presidential legacy to a story about a bathtub: Legend has it that Taft, who weighed over 300 pounds during his presidency, once got so stuck in the White House bathtub that it took six people to pull him out. Yes, six. But the reality is that this likely never happened.

Perusing newspapers for reports of the event might feel a bit foolish — the most powerful man in America getting stuck in the White House bathtub likely would not be publicized. Yet there are many articles mentioning Taft and his bathtub, but for another reason: It was custom-built just for him and it was absolutely massive.

A 2009 exhibit at the National Archives simply called "Big!" featured a replica of a 7-foot, 1-inch-long tub built specifically for Taft alongside other large objects, like Shaquille O'Neal's sneakers and the first copy of the Articles of Confederation on a piece of stitched parchment over 13 feet long. That particular tub was built and used on the USS North Carolina when Taft took a trip to Panama to visit the construction of the Panama Canal, and may have been the one installed in the White House. However, it wasn't the only one made specially for him. The Hotel Taft in New Haven, Connecticut, installed an 8-foot-long bathtub for Taft's suite during his professorship at Yale after his presidency.

It seems unlikely, then, that Taft would get stuck in one of his custom tubs. The story has been traced back to Ike Hoover, the White House's chief usher at the time. In his 1934 memoir, he mentioned it once:

When Taft came to the White House, a large tub had to be placed in his bathroom, since the one already there was not big enough. The President would stick in it while bathing and had to be helped out each time.

And while Hoover perhaps had no reason to lie, his memoir is the only known firsthand account. Historians have placed large question marks next to the bathtub story because everything else suggests otherwise.

As a consolation prize, we can share this different bathtub escapade involving Taft: In 1915, Taft took a bath at a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey. The tub overflowed, with water dripping through the floor into the dining room below. A plumber was summoned to Taft's room to investigate and found the former president napping, unaware of the flooded bathroom floor.

Taft reportedly glanced at the Atlantic Ocean the next day and joked, "I'll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then when I venture in, there won't be any overflow."

Sources

Coe, Alexis. "Opinion | William Howard Taft Is Still Stuck in the Tub." The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2017. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/opinion/william-howard-taft-bathtub.html.

"Evening Star 29 Dec 1922, Page 6." Newspapers.Com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/332739040/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Hoover, Irwin Hood. Forty-Two Years in the White House. Boston, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1934. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/fortytwoyearsinw00hoov.

Humanities, National Endowment for the. The Washington Herald. [Volume] (Washington, D.C.) 1906-1939, January 14, 1913, Image 1. 14 Jan. 1913. chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045433/1913-01-14/ed-1/seq-1/.

Magazine, Smithsonian, and Mary Beth Griggs. "Taft's Bathtubs Weighed A Ton." Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tafts-bathtubs-weighed-ton-180951871/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Rothstein, Edward. "There Are No Small Parts in This American History Lesson." The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2009. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/12/arts/design/12muse.html.

"The Washington Post 21 Jan 1909, Page Page 6." Newspapers.Com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/28876954/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Times, Special to The New York. "TAFT CAUSES HOTEL DELUGE; Tidal Wave from His Bathtub Floods Bankers in Dining Room." The New York Times, 19 June 1915. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1915/06/19/archives/taft-causes-hotel-deluge-tidal-wave-from-his-bathtub-floods-bankers.html.

"William Howard Taft." The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/william-howard-taft/. Accessed 21 Nov. 2023.

Jack Izzo is a Chicago-based journalist and two-time "Jeopardy!" alumnus.