In a famous scene from Crocodile Dundee, Mick Dundee stands in the bathroom of his upscale New York City hotel room toiling with the bidet, attempting by trial and error to determine what it is and how to use it.
The hotel where Dundee is sizing up the bidet must have been outfitted in European style. The majority of bathrooms in the U.S., including those in the fanciest hotels, often lack a bidet, and encountering one is just as likely to confound someone born and raised in the U.S. as it is a leathery, affable man from the Outback. When there is a porcelain toilet-side wash station installed in a U.S. bathroom, it is often an unexpected extra.
Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and parts of Europe and South America, people would find it unsettling to enter a washroom devoid of a bidet. As it turns out, the standard practice of something as basic as cleaning up after the restroom varies greatly in approach around the world.
Where there's a will, there's a bidet
The bidet is believed to have originated in France in the early 1700s, which is also where it found its name. Bidet means “horse” in French, or more specifically a “cob,” which is a strong, short-legged horse. For the uninitiated, the term is a visual allusion to how one is supposed to use the contraption. (Furthering the horse theme, Napoleon’s men also likely utilized the bidet to freshen up after long rides.)
One of the earliest-known bidets was installed in the bedroom—these were the days of bedside chamber pots, too—of the French royal family in 1710 by Christophe des Rosiers, who is widely credited as the bidet’s inventor. Pots and bidets eventually moved out of the bedroom, and as technology developed, so did both appliances. In 1750, for example, the bidet was upgraded with a hand pump to allow for spraying.
Since its first days providing cleanliness for French royalty, the bidet has spread internationally. It is considered standard in many European countries, particularly in Italy and Portugal, as well as in South American countries like Argentina and Venezuela. They also are commonly found in Middle Eastern countries and throughout East Asia, especially in Japan. According to estimates, bidets are present in about 80 percent of bathrooms in these areas.
The American Way
One developed country conspicuously absent from that list is the U.S. Why the bidet never caught on stateside is a bit of a mystery. In 2007, NYU professor Harvey Molotch offered a few theories to The New York Times. Because the fixture was a French invention, it was rejected by the English, and that sentiment drifted across the pond. During World War II, the Times notes, American soldiers saw bidets in European brothels, "perpetuating the idea that bidets were somehow associated with immorality."
Another issue is bathroom size. Most bathrooms in the U.S. aren't big enough for an extra appliance. Whether this prevented the spread of bidets in the U.S. or bathroom size developed as such because extra room was unneeded (the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg debate) is unknown.
One of the most successful bidet models, interestingly enough, was invented in the U.S. in the 1960s by Arnold Cohen, also known as “Mr. Bidet.” As Cohen has said, when he first began marketing his model, 99 percent of people in the U.S. had never heard of or seen a bidet, which made sales stateside for American Bidet Company slow growing. A company named Toto Ltd. saw the potential and repackaged Cohen’s concept as a “washlet” in the 1980s. That hybrid toilet-bidet appliance is now installed in more than half of Japanese homes and, based on 2007 numbers, has sold in excess of 17 million.
Most people reared on the bidet perceive it as unsanitary to skip, while people used to solely paper tend to think similarly about using the bidet. Bidet proponents cite improved cleanliness, more comfort (less abrasion, to get specific) and environmental sustainability as reasons to hop on the bidet. It is estimated that in North America, where paper is the way to go, 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper go to waste annually.
While the opportunity for the clunky, standard bidet to catch on in the U.S. might have passed, manufacturers like Kohler are producing new iterations of the bidet, or at least incorporating underside-cleaning appliances into toilets. The fresh take might just work the bidet into more U.S. homes.