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Who Invented the Bidet?

Posted by Steve Scheer on Jun 28th 2018

Who invented the Bidet?

A Brief History of Butt Washers

The invention of the bidet – the best and most effective way to clean our rear ends – isn’t covered in most history text books… but maybe it should be! Until that day, though, we’ve got the dirt on the history of these magical cleaning devices.

The History of Cleaning with Water

Humans have washed with water throughout history – in oceans, rivers, bath tubs, and showers. Religious ceremonies and beliefs have long used water as a cleansing or purifying agent. One of the  earliest known bath tubs dates from around 1500 B.C. The ancient Roman public toilets are an early example of using water specifically to clean the nether regions. Romans would use a wet sponge on a stick to clean themselves, called a “tersorium”.

During some parts of history, bathing was limited (and even considered  dangerous or immoral), but we’ve mostly understood that water helps get things cleaner. As germ theory and modern hygiene practices emerged, so did the understanding that washing with clean water also stops the spread of disease. Indoor plumbing soon brought clean, fresh water to more homes. The history of the bidet starts way before indoor plumbing and the invention of the shower, though!

Origins of the Bidet

Early bidets were an easy way to keep clean. It was  labor-intensive and expensive to fill an entire bath tub with water, so cleaning smaller areas of the body was a good compromise. Historically, the practice of washing one’s private parts in a bowl of water (often placed on a chair) was quite common, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that the French invented a piece of furniture just for that purpose.

Bidet means pony in French

People often wonder  what bidet means. In French, the word bidet means “pony” or “small horse” and refers to the way you sit on or straddle the basin – like riding a horse. It’s possible that this meaning of the word bidet was also inspired by French soldiers. They often enjoyed cleaning their sore undercarriages in basins of water after a long day of horse riding.

French furniture-makers are credited with the invention of the bidet, though it’s unclear  exactly who invented the bidet. The invention may have come from a single inventor or a guild of talented craftsmen. It’s possible that the royal family’s furniture-maker Christophe Des Rosiers invented the bidet; there is evidence that he installed a bidet for the royal family in 1710.

The original bidet was a porcelain bowl for water set into a wooden stand or chair. It would have been kept in the bedroom next to a chamber pot. French aristocrats were the early adopters of this new invention. Their furniture-makers designed elegant pieces of furniture with carved wood and even jeweled accents. The decorative porcelain bidet bowls often matched their porcelain chamber pots.

Both male and female aristocrats in this decadent time valued the ease and cleanliness of using these newly-invented bidets. Napoleon even included his silver-gilt bidet  in his will! Bidets were especially favored by the mistresses of the French court who might need to freshen up quickly. After the fall of the French aristocracy, bidets became linked with brothels and bordellos. Like the French mistresses, courtesans found bidets to be very useful for their line of work. At the time, it was also widely believed that using a bidet could help prevent pregnancy.

In the 18 th century, the bidet got its first upgrade: the addition of a water pump and tank. This invention meant that bidet enthusiasts could simply spray a fountain of water onto their behinds. They no longer needed to scoop up water with their hands to wash. Indoor plumbing would eventually bring the bidet from the bedroom into to the bathroom, where it would become the familiar porcelain fixture we know today.

Bidet use also spread to other parts of Western Europe, and into Asia, South America, and the Middle East. As it did so, other types of bidets appeared – most notably, the  hand bidet, which incorporated the water pump technology into a hand-held sprayer. These sprayers, or "shattafs", are now most commonly found in predominantly Muslim countries. This is why you'll also hear them referred to as "Muslim showers". In Islam, being physically clean is a prerequisite for spiritual cleanliness; water is the recommended way to clean and purify one's body. Even before the introduction of the spraying bidet, Muslims cleansed themselves with water, often using a tool called the lota. Bidets, in all their different forms, are the main method of cleaning in many parts of the world. For many people, it would be unthinkable to clean without water!

Bidets in North America

Why didn’t bidet use spread to the United States? A puritan dislike for discussing bodily functions (especially women’s bodily functions) was likely  a root cause. The historical tie to hedonism certainly didn’t help. That link was only reinforced when American soldiers serving during WWII were first introduced to bidets in European brothels. Today, many Americans still react to bidets with disgust, simply because they are uncomfortable talking about the body’s biological functions.

Surprisingly, the history of the bidet toilet seat begins in the United States. Arnold Cohen (a.k.a. “Mr. Bidet”) invented the  first bidet toilet seat and founded the American Bidet Company in the 1960s. Motivated by his father’s medical condition, Mr. Bidet’s new device placed a spraying nozzle into a toilet seat to help his father clean himself. Most Americans, however, were not interested in this new bidet invention.

Toilet Seats Get Smarter

In 1964, a Japanese company licensed Cohen’s design and  launched their own version of his seat in Japan; though this seat was also unsuccessful. Undeterred, in the 1980s the company tried a redesigned, less-expensive version of the bidet toilet seat. While the first bidet toilet seats were mechanically operated, this new seat used electricity. It had the basic features of a modern bidet seat, like instant water heating, a warm air dryer, and a heated seat.

Today, over 80% of homes in Japan have a bidet toilet seat. How did bidet seats become so popular in Japan? It  took a while to win people over. To start, bidet seats were put in places like hotels and restaurants, so the public could easily try them. A cheeky marketing campaign featuring a popular Japanese pop singer declared that bidets were a better way to take care of your rear end. Japan’s culture has always valued cleanliness; showing that bidets are a better, more effective way to keep clean proved successful. Japan’s interest in electronics, plus a booming economy, soon made bidet toilet seats essential cleaning devices in most Japanese homes.

Now, bidets are more sophisticated than ever.  Today’s smart bidets have everything from user memory settings and Bluetooth technology to silver nanoparticle nozzle sterilization. Bidet users control water temperature, pressure, and more, all from a wireless remote control.

Golden gate bridge and Brondell office

Tomorrow’s Bidet

Encouraged by the bidet toilet seat’s recent success around the world, more innovators are exploring whether Americans are now ready for bidets. Americans may still have many misconceptions about bidets, but companies like Brondell are  trying to change that.

Founded in 2003 and funded by investor Mark Cuban, San Francisco-based Brondell believes Americans  are ready. With high-tech bidet toilet seats, attachments, and sprayers designed specifically for the American bathroom and lifestyle, Brondell has been working to show Americans that washing with water is more comfortable, effective, and environmentally friendly. The American bidet market continues to grow as Brondell leads its “Wash, Don’t Wipe” revolution. Isn’t it about time you joined it?