The word "bidet" was first used around the 16th century to refer to pet ponies that the French royalty kept. As a receptacle that people straddle (like a pony), the bidet is believed to have been an invention of French furniture makers in the late 17th or early 18th century, but no single inventor gets credit for the idea. Throughout the 18th century, only the wealthiest European homes had bidets, which were often decorated with fancy adornments such as rosewood veneer, gilded bronze and crystal flakes. In fact, when Marie Antoinette set off on her journey from Vienna to France to marry the dauphin in 1760, her coach was supposedly equipped with a bidet decked out with red velvet and gold embroidery [source: Ashenburg].
In those days, people bathed their whole bodies only about once a week. The original bidet -- nothing more than a bowl with water that was splashed onto the genitals by hand -- cleaned sensitive areas between regularly scheduled baths. Conservatives of the time worried that the bidet's increase in popularity could lead to an increase in promiscuity, as people began to take better care of their private parts. Although the toilet -- or least the basic idea of one -- had existed at least since 2500 B.C., the bidet got people thinking differently about cleanliness. This newfound interest in hygiene also made people realize that hands and faces weren't the only parts of the body that needed to be washed [source: Ashenburg].
With European plumbing improvements in the 1900s, bidets were mechanized and finally moved from the bedroom into the bathroom. Yet most Americans weren't exposed to bidets until the late 1930s, when World War II soldiers began visiting French brothels. Why bidets became popular throughout Europe, some Asian countries (Korea, Japan and Taiwan) and even South America but not the States is a question with no definite answer. Some speculate that installing a bidet in addition to a toilet requires too much space, or that Americans simply weren't accustomed to the idea and saw no need to change their habits.
The electronic bidet hit the market in 1960, combining the bidet with the toilet, and it slowly began to make its way into American culture. The Toto Washlet, a more advanced version of the electronic bidet, has sold more than 17 million units worldwide since the product's release in 1980. The Washlet arrived in the United States in 1990, and U.S. sales figures have since increased [source: Altman]. Can they continue to engrave themselves into American bathroom culture? Let's find out.