Why Do So Many Countries Use Bidets But The US Doesn't?
Every day, the world flushes 270,000 trees down the toilet. If the US switched to bidets, it could save 15 million trees - so why don't Americans use bidets? If you're not familiar with this alternative to toilet paper in many countries, it's a basin separate from the toilet for washing one's nether regions. What countries use bidets? Many households in Europe, Asia, and South America rely on them.
And why are bidets popular in Europe, but not America? Colonial American hygiene began with chamber pots and outhouses, and the country eventually progressed to toilets. Overall, however, Americans were skittish about hygiene topics associated with bidets. Distaste for bidets was amplified during World War II, when many American GIs saw bidets for the first time - in brothels.
Today bidets are cheaper than ever, and there's a strong environmental argument for giving up toilet paper in favor of the bidet. So why aren't bidets more popular in America today? And will the interest in bidets sparked by the coronavirus pandemic continue after 2020?
- Photo: Lenilucho / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
American Soldiers Introduced To Bidets In Brothels During WWII Associated Them With Illicit Activity
Many Americans had never even seen a bidet before the mid-20th century.
When American troops went overseas during WWII, many came face-to-face with bidets in unsavory spots: brothels. American GIs thus associated bidets with illicit activity.
Returning veterans did not bring word of the bidet back with them from Europe - that would amount to confessing they had visited the bordellos during their service.
- Photo: Louis-Léopold Boilly / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Early Bidets Were Used (Ineffectively) For Contraception, And Thus Associated With Scandal
In the early days of the bidet, Americans and the British thought douching was an effective method of birth control, and thus associated bidets unfavorably with contraception, even though neither douching nor bidets were effective ways to prevent pregnancy.
In 1936, Norman Haire, a proponent of birth control, said that “the presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin.”
- Photo: Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Bidets Were Invented In France In The 1600s To Use Alongside Chamber Pots In Bedrooms
The French invented the bidet in 1600s. Before the 17th century, Europe's bedrooms came outfitted with chamber pots. Starting in the 1600s, chamber pot users would then turn to their bidet to wash their privates. Early bidets didn't spray water; instead, they were often ceramic basins set into a wooden frame to lift them.
The word "bidet" came from the French word for a small horse. In 1785, the English antiquarian Francis Grose defined a bidet as "a kind of tub, contrived for ladies to wash themselves, for which purpose they bestride it like a little French pony."
The idea of "riding the bidet" spread to English-speaking countries. In 1863, one English traveler wrote, "I trotted behind on a little bidet."
The British Shunned Bidets, Associating Them With French Hedonism, And That Attitude Carried Over To The US
French royals quickly adopted the bidet to keep clean. The bidet became a luxury associated with the aristocracy. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette even had a bidet while in prison waiting for her execution.
The British, on the other hand, refused to adopt the bidet. The bidet's association with French aristocrats and their hedonism led many Englishmen to reject the "French pony." The negative British attitude toward the bidet shaped how Americans saw it as well.
When a Manhattan hotel tried to install a bidet around 1900, Americans took to the streets to protest.
- Photo: AustinTowers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Bidets Were Also Helpful For Menstruation, Another Taboo Topic
From the beginning, bidets were associated with women. Prostitutes used bidets for hygiene; French queens like Marie Antoinette required bidets even while in prison; and bidets also helped women during menstruation.
In the 18th century, menstruation was a taboo topic. Women were expected to handle their monthly cycles in private, relying on "jelly rags" to stay clean. William Buchan, an 18th century physician, lamented that “there are no women in the world so inattentive to this discharge [menstruation] as the English, and they suffer accordingly.”
Bidets helped menstruating women manage their "unmentionable" discharge, which made English and American men more likely to avoid adopting bidets.
- Photo: J. L. Mott Iron Works / New York Public Library / Public Domain
Bidets Moved From Bedrooms To Bathrooms In The 1800s As Indoor Plumbing Became More Common
The earliest bidets were more like wash basins than modern toilets. But as indoor plumbing grew more common in the 19th century, the bidet evolved.
Instead of storing bidets in the bedroom next to the chamber pot, Europeans moved the bidet into the bathroom. The first of these plumbed bidets relied on a faucet to fill the bowl. Once an expensive tool of the wealthy, plumbed bidets eventually became inexpensive enough for widespread use - outside of the United States.