The incredible story of the 1st part bidet
The history of this medical device so loved by Italians is truly unique, not so much as a piece of furniture but as a symbol characterizing eras: there is no doubt that its function is to facilitate personal hygiene, but we will see how the perception of his usefulness has changed over the centuries and how today is different depending on the country. If you want to have a laugh, go to YouTube and look for videos shot by American, British or Australian tourists and enjoy their reactions to the meeting with the bidet: someone is amused, someone remains dumbfounded or even disgusted. The fact is that many do not even know what it is for and how to use it, and that the only countries in the world where installation in at least one bathroom is mandatory Italy and Portugal.
Is the bidet destined to enter museums only or, as we will see, could it conquer the world? But let’s go with the order…
From France with fury
In 2009 the first book in French has published on the bidet: “Le Confident Des Dames. Le Bidet Du XVIII Au XX Siècle: Histoire D’une Intimité ”, by Julia Csergo and Roger-Henry Guerrand, La Découverte editions. Of course, I bought it, especially to read the chapter entitled “The Italian case” … but I’ll talk about this in the second part. In this synopsis, we read: “yes, foreigners think that the bidet is a French invention …”. Thus the authors admit, almost resigned, the French origin of the apparatus, also because etymology does not lie. The term bidet, appeared in the dictionary Trésor in 1739, stems, and evokes ancient fact, the French l ‘ act of riding a pony, with all the implications of an erotic nature deriving from it: it is, therefore, understandable the embarrassment, mixed with hilarity, which captures the Alps when they are forced to pronounce the name.
Yet at the palace of Versailles, where the bidet successfully installed itself during the reign of Louis XV, specimens of rare finesse were in use, produced by the best artisans of the Kingdom or even ordered in China: they were ceramic or metal containers with violin shape, fitted chairs or stools and were fitted with a lid. At the Bellevue Castle in Meudon you can admire two specimens that belonged to Louis XV and his favorite, Mme de Pompadour, delivered, as appears from a regular bull, in 1751.
It should be remembered that at the time the bathroom as we understand it today did not exist : hygiene was not a daily affair or even an intimate one, so much so that people used to make the toilet in public in their own bedroom, where a tub was installed at moment of need, and where the chamber pots and our dear bidet were, even if well hidden. Here is a perfect example of what the sanitary equipment must have been in the time of Louis XV, in the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte: you can see the “comfortable” on the left, the bathtub in the center and the bidet on the right (in the photo only a part of it is seen), all disguised in stylish furniture .
However, the career of the bidet started in a promising way, suffered a sudden collapse due to the crusade promoted by the clergy and by a certain bigoted aristocracy, who considered it a vehicle of sinful temptations: after all, the Church explicitly forbade washing without a modest shirt that covered the nudity. Imagine the scandal that broke out when the priests who haunted the court discovered that the ladies dedicated themselves with particular diligence to the cleanliness of that part of the body that was virtually inaccessible. So the bidet went underground, so much so that since then it was advertised as a “porcelain violin case”! A clever ploy to introduce the reviled “tool of prostitution” to the court despite the ban.
The golden age in the Victorian era
Briefly rehabilitated in the Napoleonic era, the bidet continues its muted career in the “meeting houses”. Yet something is moving … The nineteenth century is a period in which bigotry and scientific progress make a fierce struggle: the frequent and dramatic epidemics that afflict the overcrowded (and dirty) European cities, push the scientific society to find a solution. Finally, hygiene became an essential factor in fighting infections and, thanks to the endorsement of science, water, and soap slowly prevailed over the fear of God and superstition: with the arrival of running water in the houses, starting from the second half of the century, the bathroom was finally entitled to a room of its own! And the bidet, listen, hear, had its place in the Victorian baths of the whole globe: proof of this are some rare images and the specimens preserved in museums or by private collectors. Look how wonderful this photograph of a very rare original Victorian bathroom, found in a San Francisco house turned into a museum: Haas – Lilienthal House. The bidet is presented as a “curiosity” imported from Europe by the Bavarian architect Peter R. Schmidt.
Of course, the bathroom was reserved for the upper classes, while in the common houses there were simple toilets, among other things made mandatory in the houses for the first time in England in 1848. However, the bidet is very rare in Anglo-Saxon countries, while it spreads regularly in Latin countries, up to South America, and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both in private homes and in hotels. As for the design, the bidet, like the other sanitary appliances too, acquires its final shape, or that of a single piece in ceramic that includes base and tub, now forged in a regular oval. The shape is very similar to that of the toilet bowl, and it can be said that from this moment the two companions travel together in the history of design, always appearing side by side and almost identical. The first bidets with running water did not have a spout, but a “rim” from which the water flowed into the tub, and then came out of the drain: the taps and pipes were positioned outside the appliance, as you can see from this illustration.
Curiously, some pieces initially kept the lid that characterized their predecessors inserted in the chairs …! Another curiosity: it seems that the famous Austrian company Thonet supplied both the aforementioned lids, in Vienna straw, and the curved wooden supports for portable bidets.
The Victorian-era sanitary ware was very ornate and polychrome, with floral motifs, sometimes in relief: starting from the 20th century the bidet, like the rest of the sanitary appliances, became “medicalized”, the decorations became more sober, up to almost disappear. At this time the models with taps are included, provided with three holes, two for the hot and cold water taps, one for opening and closing the cap: the water still came out of the rim or from a jet positioned in the center of the tank, and the model remained so at least until the 1970s, when single-lever mixers with a spout were introduced. Ironically, the companies that produced the finest bidets of the time were French and English …