Possible 17th-Century Invention
A bidet is a low-mounted plumbing fixture used for washing external genitalia, perineum, and anus.
Since it was popularized in the early eighteenth century, the bidet has not been a simple sanitary item but has been a hygienic practice that is at least suspect. Metaphor of the relationship between man and his own sensual nature, a true ideological container, the bidet spans two and a half centuries of history between forerunners of modern prophylaxis and proud opponents of all ablution.
For some it is an essential accessory for intimate hygiene, for others, it is a useless way of taking up space in the bathroom. But the birth of the bidet, a common lavatory piece in several countries around the world, goes back to other, more unexpected uses.
History of the Bidet
This personal hygiene item has been in use for centuries, and its origins can be traced back to Europe in the 17th century.
The name comes from the Old French bidet, a type of small horse similar to a pony, now extinct, used by the ladies and children of the nobility for their walks; and it refers to the position in which you have to sit, just like when riding.
Its most obvious function is intimate hygiene, as a complement to the bathroom: at a time when having a bathtub was a privilege even among the nobility and the bulk of the population had to make do with natural currents, it was used to clean the most odorous parts of the body on the days when they could not bathe.
The origins of the bidet are unknown. Some believe it to have originated in Italy during the Renaissance Era, while others believe it was a French Invention.
The most accepted theory is that it was made by French furniture-makers, though it is unclear if the idea came from a single inventor or a guild of talented craftsmen. It is 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.
Nevertheless, there is no consensus among historians about the origins of the bidet, and some believe it might have already been in use back in The Middle Ages.
“The more prevalent theory is that bidets were traded around the world. At one point in history, France was one of the most well-known trading countries in the world. People as far away as China were eager to get their hands on the latest French styles, perfumes, and furniture. In French courts, diplomats from Asian and Indian countries would visit, and take note of these fancy bidets. It’s likely that they came home and hired their own craftsmen to build their own.” Source: Bidet.org
The first bidets were made of porcelain or earthenware in the shape of a bowl for water set into a wooden stand or chair. They were designed to be used for washing the feet, as well as for personal hygiene. It would have been kept in the bedroom next to a chamber pot.
In the 18th century, the bidet became popular among the French aristocracy, and it was soon adopted by other European countries. At this time, the bidet was seen as a luxury item and was only found in the homes of the wealthy.
René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, Marquis d’Argenson and minister of the French monarch Louis XV, recounts in his memoirs a curious scene: one day, upon being received in audience by Madame de Prie, he found her found sitting astride a curious piece of furniture in which she was preparing to wash her private parts, apparently at the same time that she was going to talk to him.
Both male and female aristocrats valued the ease and cleanliness of using these newly-invented bidets. One of the most famous French bidet users was Napoleon, himself. Napoleon used it to relieve the itching in the buttocks and thighs after riding. He valued it so highly that he even bequeathed his prized silver bidet to his son, giving the utensil enormous publicity and immediately increasing its popularity among the French nobility.
Bidets were especially favoured by the mistresses of the French Aristocracy who might need to freshen up quickly. Like the French mistresses, courtesans found bidets to be very useful for their line of work.
For women who had an extramarital affair (whether they were married or not), it was a way of limiting the risk of becoming pregnant by their lovers; and for married women, a way to avoid contagion from their husbands’ adventures.
But beyond body hygiene, the bidet had another equally important function: that of a contraceptive method, which, although of doubtful efficacy, was the best that could be expected.
After the fall of the French aristocracy, bidets became linked with brothels and bordellos. This could even have been its original use: prostitutes used similar containers to clean themselves after having sex, hoping to avoid pregnancies and venereal diseases.
Its contraceptive use was no secret: the Queen of Naples Maria Carolina of the House Habsburg-Lorraine, who wanted to install one in her palace in Caserta, was told that this could give her a bad name since it was a “whore’s instrument”, a warning she ignored.
The Church fiercely criticized its use, even suggesting that it was used to perform abortions.
The success of the bidet actually lasted less than two centuries, since its diffusion among the majority of the population was almost on par with the shower, which better fulfilled its hygienic function.
Only in the second half of the 19th century did there start to have running water facilities in houses, and they would not be generalized until the 20th. By then, the use of the bidet had been so restricted that the majority of the population simply did not see the use of it – despite which some countries, such as Italy or Portugal, made its installation in bathrooms mandatory.
Today, bidets come in many different forms, including standalone fixtures, toilet seat attachments, and handheld sprayers.
There are many advantages to using a bidet. Not only is it more hygienic than using toilet paper, but it can also be more eco-friendly, as it reduces the amount of paper waste produced by a household. Bidets can also be more comfortable and soothing for people who experience haemorrhoids, constipation, or other medical conditions that make wiping painful.
While it may have started as a luxury item, the bidet has become a popular fixture in many households and is seen as a more hygienic alternative to using toilet paper. As more people become aware of its benefits, it is likely that the bidet will continue to gain popularity around the world.
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