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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 1
Toilet paper is in short supply these days. In anticipation of a coronavirus shutdown, people around the world cleared supermarket shelves of bathroom tissue—for reasons psychologists don’t entirely understand. But a select population was sitting pretty, knowing they had nothing to fear: bidet owners.
Bidets originated in 17th-century Europe and were perfected in the 1980s in Japan. They clean butts with a carefully-angled stream of water, instead of a wad of temperate rainforest. While many cultures have embraced the nozzle, it’s faced some serious resistance in the United States. But new, cheaper devices, a growing concern about the environmental disaster that is conventional TP, and, perhaps, a pandemic, may be the bidet’s breakthrough moment.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 2
$106 million: Current size of the bidet seat and bidet toilet market in the United States
$660 (¥149,000): Price of the Toto Washlet in 1980
$2,500: Price of the Toto Washlet today
$99: Price of a cold-water bidet attachment from Tushy
1,000%: Increase in Tushy sales after Covid-19 caused a run on toilet paper
36.5 billion: Rolls of toilet paper Americans use annually
37 gallons: Water required to produce a roll of toilet paper
0.13 gallons (0.5 liters): Per-minute water consumption of a bidet
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 3
At its most basic, a modern bidet is just a nozzle in the toilet bowl that blasts cold or warm water toward the user on command. It effectively washes off poop as it sprays, cleansing your butt in the process. Many bidets offer a customizable angle of approach, but Toto, the world’s largest toilet manufacturer, says the “golden angle” is 43 degrees. When the spray stops, you can air dry or pat yourself down with a single sheet of paper.
But that doesn’t stop some bidets from being very, very fancy. Japanese companies have pioneered multi-purpose loos that light up, play music, and automatically lift their lids. You can control water and seat temperature, as well as flow. Some come with a “pulsating” and/or “massage” mode, which can help stimulate bowel movements. And, of course, the best toilets will send some warm air toward your butt to speed the drying process when you’re done.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 4
“I invented the American bidet 45 years ago, to help my father with a literal pain in the A.”
“The presence of a bidet is regarded as almost a symbol of sin.”
“If a bird pooped on you, would you wipe it? No, you’d wash it off.”
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 5
Our field guide to the coronavirus pandemic examines the biggest threats to global industries as they recover, and the potential the pandemic has to accelerate the world’s transition to renewable energy.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 6
In French, the word “bidet” also means “pony,” presumably because users would squat over the water-filled basin to hand wash their nether-regions in roughly the same position they’d ride a horse. The aristocracy initially kept their bidets in their bedrooms. “Some of the early versions of the bidet look like ornamental ottomans; the basins were inset in wooden furniture with short legs,” according to The Atlantic. “Often lids made of wood, wicker, or leather topped the seated portion, disguising its function to a degree.” But as indoor plumbing became more common, the bidet moved to the bathroom. The advent of electricity allowed for a customizable spray.
Today, a bidet can be a built-in on a high-end toilet, like the kind seen in luxury hotels. More often, though, it’s attached to the toilet seat, which makes it cheaper to produce, easier to use, and possible to install on almost any toilet.
There’s no scientific evidence that bidets are better or worse than toilet paper for cleaning your nether regions in general, but some people with issues like hemorrhoids and pruritus ani (better known as itchy butt) seek bidets out as a gentler alternative to wiping; since it’s hands-free, it can also benefit those with arthritis or other mobility issues.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 7
1596: Sir John Harington, an English courtier, invents the modern flushable toilet.
1710: Christophe des Rosiers, the purported inventor of the bidet, installs his equipment in the chambers of the French royal family.
1928: John Harvey Kellogg, director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and healthy living evangelist, patents an “anal douche” nozzle. He was also, interestingly enough, an anti-masturbation advocate.
1964: Arnold Cohen of the American Bidet Company champions the electronic bidet, which combines a jet with a toilet seat.
1980: The Toto Company introduces the Washlet.
1990: Toto enters the US market.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 8
Every year, the average American flushes 23.6 rolls of toilet paper down the drain. While some companies like Seventh Generation have succeeded in selling 100% recycled toilet paper, other manufacturers cut down temperate rainforests in Washington and Oregon and old-growth boreal forests of Canada, to manufacture it. “Most of America’s toilet paper is made directly from fresh pulp, from tree farms and virgin forests, because the industrial process that makes each sheet soft enough for sensitive human posteriors requires long fibers that simply don’t survive recycling,” according to Gizmodo. Don’t be fooled, though—some of the cheap-feeling stuff is also made from fresh pulp.
In February 2019, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a sustainability report card, giving Fs to major brands like Charmin and Kirland. The report inspired a new wave of toilet paper startups, according to Vox. Companies like Who Gives a Crap want to bring recycled paper or bamboo paper to a new social media generation. But the combo of sustainable products and aesthetically-pleasing branding comes at a cost: $48 for 48 recycled rolls, and $52 for 48 bamboo rolls.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 10
Japan, Argentina, and Italy are just a few of the countries that have embraced the bidet. But historically, the United States has held out. The primary theory is that Americans rejected the bidet because of its association with sex. It may trace back to the 18th century, when the British (and, by extension, many Americans) “regarded French imports as tainted with the hedonism and sensuality of that country,” according to the New York Times. Or it may be a byproduct of World War II: “GIs visiting bordellos [in Europe] would often see bidets in the bathrooms, so they began to associate these basins with sex work,” according to The Atlantic.
At this point, though it’s probably just fear of the unknown. “For Americans here in the US, the biggest issues are personal experience with these products and a major reluctance to discuss bathroom issues or change ingrained habits,” Steve Scheer, president of the bidet company Brondell, told Priceonomics. “You wouldn’t imagine how many people giggle nervously or say ‘gross’ when we try to educate them about the advantages of the bidet seat.”
But the bidet’s status may be changing, as bidets become more common, more affordable, and more aligned with other values, like environmentalism. “Interest in bidets is booming,” Ben Frumin, the editor in chief of reviews website Wirecutter, told Wired. “Traffic to our bidets guide has increased something like 5,000 percent year over year.”
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 11
There’s more than one way to cleanse your butt. In Muslim-majority countries, particularly in South Asia, the lota is common. As Wajahat Ali writes, it’s a “manual bidet” for which watering pots are often used—or, in a pinch, a coffee cup—though “Traditionalists insist that the only lota that can properly perform its intended duty is the copper or brass vessel commonly found in Pakistan and India.” (Design legends Charles and Ray Eames were lota fans.) Another bidet alternative is a “bum gun”: a tiny handheld shower head that’s something like a hybrid between a lota and a bidet that’s common in Southeast Asia.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 12
Toto, the world’s largest toilet manufacturer and a leader in Japanese toilet innovation, opened a toilet museum in 2017. You may not be able to visit the exhibits in Kitakyushu for yourself, but this nearly 12-minute ode to the museum is sure to satisfy your curiosity, and give you a history of the toilet in Japan.
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Quartz Obsession — Bidets — Card 15
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