A Short History of the Bidet, and Why They’re Just Not Popular (Yet) in America

A Short History of the Bidet, and Why They’re Just Not Popular (Yet) in America

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If you’ve never used a bidet, you’re missing out. While it looks like a urinal — which confuses some Americans who see it in the occasional hotel room or overseas — the bathroom fixture is actually a fountain for rinsing off your undercarriage after using the facilities. But bidets never caught on in America, and our quick bidet history aims to explain why.

Bidets are distinctly European.

Invented in France during the 1600s, its name (pronounced bih-day) derives from the French word for “pony,” and they were used predominantly by aristocrats who wished to clean their nether-regions after a horse ride.

With the advent of plumbing in the 1700s and 1800s, bidets eventually became popular among other social classes and in countries within Western Europe, South America and the Middle East. But even after American soldiers encountered bidets in European bordellos during World War II, they never quite caught on, partly because soldiers associated them with sex work.

And despite many continued attempts to market bidets to Americans (we’re looking at you, Tushy), they still haven’t really caught on.

An old-timey French bidet as painted by Louis-Léopold Boilly

They’re associated with women’s issues.

As we said above, American soldiers first encountered bidets in European brothels and came to understand them as “symbols of sin” for washing away the unsavory scents and fluids associated with sleeping with strange men.

In Europe, bidets were also used (ineffectively) as a means of birth control and a way of washing away the heavy flow of menstruation.

This trifecta of women’s uses made bidets unappetizing to men who might’ve helped import them into America if only they had realized their use for men’s backsides.

For the most part, they’re expensive.

Although John Harvey Kellogg (yep, the cornflakes guy) patented a bidet-like toilet nozzle in 1928 — and subsequent studies showed that bidets could help heal hemorrhoids and other irritations — the cost of bidets kept them out of reach for most people.

While a Kellogg-style toilet bowl nozzle only costs about $60 at your average Bed, Bath and Beyond, a full-fledged porcelain bidet is quite the investment, running anywhere from $170 to $700 (and that’s not including plumbing and installation).

Compared to a $3 package of wet wipes, it’s no wonder that moist handheld tissues have become the preferred method for cleaning one’s underside. Sadly, wet wipes are also literally destroying the planet and ruining public sewer systems because most of them aren’t meant to be flushed, making bidets seem like a more expensive yet more environmentally friendly alternative.

How much of our short bidet history was a surprise?

This article was originally published on March 21, 2018. It has since been updated. 

Image at top: Prasert Krainukul / Getty Images

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