Bidets past and present

antique porcelain bidet in wooden chair frame

Porcelain bidet from c1800 in wooden chair-shape frame, probably French export to UK, placed alongside newer bathroom fittings. Photo by HomeThingsPast.

Do you have a bidet in your bathroom? It’s always been a difference between English-speaking countries and France. Bidets have never quite caught on in the USA or the UK, except for an occasional “trend” that never really went very far. Some upper class ladies in 19th century England had French-made bidets, and in the 1980s British sanitaryware retailers started stocking bidets.

But in France there’s a bidet in every bathroom, isn’t there? Not any more. In recent years the bidet has been disappearing from new French bathrooms. Only 40% had bidets included in the mid-1990s, as compared with 95% in the 1970s, according to the authors of a French book on the history of the bidet.† In 1995 Italy produced 15 times as many bidets as France.

Bidet-style arrrangements for personal hygiene are not limited to Europe. Arabic-speaking countries use them, and Japan is a leading producer of high-tech bidet/toilet combinations (also called washlets), with jets of water washing after you flush, and warm air following on. This type is used in nursing homes.

Bidet history

Bidet pan in stool with lid

This kind of bidet looks like a stool when the lid is on. As used in a 19th century bedroom or dressing room. Photo by Moresheth.

In France beautful bowls set into elegant seats were fashionable with the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Napoleon’s will left his silver-gilt bidet to his son. A 1751 rosewood-veneered bidet of Madame de Pompadour’s is preserved at Versailles near Paris. The basin in hers is decorative like this slightly later floral earthenware one.

That last link and the first picture on this page show the curving shape of the antique bowls.  This shape explains why the bidet once had nicknames like violin-case or little guitar. Originally the word bidet itself referred to the wooden furniture originally used for holding the bowl, and meant pony.

Debates about who invented the bidet are not likely to be settled any time soon. The French or the Italians? After all, who can say when someone first set a basin of water on a stand at a convenient height for washing the more private parts of the body?

antique bidet austrian

Bidet from the era of indoor plumbing - note the row of little holes - in an Austrian museum. Photo by Alfred Diem.

The earliest written information we have about bidets comes fom a Paris cabinet-maker whose business literature in 1739 offered bidets designed with backs and hinged lids. Rémy Peverie also suggested the possibility of making two-person bidets for his aristocratic clients. Now there’s an idea that didn’t catch on – as far as I know.

Photos

Photographers credited in captions.
Links to originals here:
bidet with lid, Austrian bidet, Japanese controls.
More picture info here

Notes

†F. Beaupré, R-H. Guerrand, Le Confident des dames: Le bidet du XVIIIe au XXe siècle
Katherine Ashenburg, Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing

bidet foot bath

Bidet and footbath combination patented 1879 in USA. Remove soapdish and sit (awkwardly?) on mini-shelf C to use it as a bidet. Invented by Merwin Church of Chicago, owner of large hardware store.

american bidet

Bidet in USA, about 1910.

bidet control panel

Controls for a bidet-toilet aka washlet in a Tokyo hotel. Photo by William Kumberger.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan January 5, 2013 at 8:22 am

Wow! Never knew about this! I’m getting one!

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Kristin January 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

Yeah, that’s why the use it in Europe! It is much more hygienic than the toilet paper we use in america! Once you use it, you never want to get off it! I gives an imaginable scene of freshness!

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site April 7, 2014 at 5:02 am

Arnold Cohen in 1964 was the first to use the bidet in the US. It’s funny how it’s so popular in other countries but North America is behind.

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