Solid mahogany bidet from the second half of the 19th century.
This solid mahogany bidet dates from the second half of the 19th century. The removable ceramic washbowl is set into the frame, with four turned baluster legs and a cover with a round pommel. Jegenstorf Castle Foundation

The bidet – furniture designed for cleansing the ‘delicate parts of the body’

300 years ago, a diverse array of special furniture designed for personal hygiene began to appear in the bedrooms and boudoirs of the French aristocracy. Among these was the ‘cleanliness seat’ – the bidet.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

According to the prevailing ideas of health in the 17th and early 18th centuries, water was poisonous and transmitted diseases that entered the body through the pores. Bathing was therefore considered bad for the health. Even the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV is said to have taken a bath only twice in his life. People preferred to dab themselves clean with dry or damp cloths, or a sponge dipped in vinegar water. If you had the money, you would resort to perfumes and powder to cover up unpleasant body odours. The level of ‘cleanliness’ maintained in this way was considered an attribute of social class.
François Boucher, La Toilette, 1742.
François Boucher, La Toilette, 1742. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
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Bedroom on the main floor of Jegenstorf Castle
A bedroom on the main floor of Jegenstorf Castle, featuring a Louis XVI alcove bed, gueridon with chamber pot, a beautifully crafted poudreuse from the Bern studio of Christoph Hopfengärtner, and a folding screen behind which the bidet and a commode are hidden from prying eyes. Georges Lehmann
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Elaborate 'morning toilette' in the boudoir

In order to be ‘clean’ (neat and tidy), the day started with an elaborate ‘morning toilette’. Especially for women, this could take quite some time because of the fashions of the age, with corsets, bodices, petticoats and hoop skirts, hip pads, wigs and hairpieces, and often required the help of servants. In an age before the advent of running water, the laborious procedure took place in the bedroom or the boudoir. These rooms were equipped with special furniture for attending to ‘local personal hygiene’, which craftsmen at the French court had been producing from the beginning of the 18th century onwards and which had rapidly been taken up by the aristocracy. One of these was the poudreuse: a dressing table with fold-out mirror and space for toilet sets, make-up, combs, hairpins, scented water and powder. Soon, the poudreuse was as much a part of the standard equipment of the private chambers in aristocratic circles as the long-established ‘commode’ – referred to by Liselotte von der Pfalz (Princess Elizabeth Charlotte, 1652-1722, sister-in-law of the Sun King, Louis XIV) in her blunt descriptions of French court life with the more expressive term Kackstuhl – roughly, ‘crapping seat’. These armchairs in various styles were elaborately designed, padded and upholstered with fabric or leather. Removable ceramic chamber pots could be integrated into these structures. Chamber pots were also concealed inside box-like, hinged pieces of furniture, with the true function often remaining hidden behind a commode-like façade.
Portrait by Emanuel Handmann, Bern, about 1765.
The young woman, an unidentified aristocrat from Bern, sits at her dressing table with a mirror, hairbrushes, jewellery and jars. Is her gaze directed at the lady’s maid who is helping her with her morning toilette? Or is the lady already receiving guests in her bedroom, who will keep her company during her lengthy ‘morning toilette’? This was not uncommon, and in fact was normal practice in the highest echelons of the aristocracy. Right up to conversations carried on from the ‘night commode’ without the slightest trace of shyness or inhibition. Portrait by Emanuel Handmann, Bern, about 1765. Jegenstorf Castle Foundation

The triumphal procession of the 'little wooden horse'

It is thought that the ‘cleanliness seat’ – the bidet – was devised at the French court during the first quarter of the 18th century. The portable seated washbasin was used for intimate hygiene, particularly by women. The word is derived from the French word bidet – a little horse or pony – because the design of early forms was reminiscent of a small horse made of wood. The user had to mount and sit astride the bidet, as if seated in a saddle. The wash bowl, made from glazed earthenware or more rarely (for travel purposes, for example) metal, was set into the seat and could be removed for filling or emptying – which of course was the job of one’s servants.
The bidet was an expression of social cachet, a luxury item made by skilled artisans. An ornate rosewood model made in 1751 for Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), mistress of King Louis XV, was decorated with carved flowers and gilt bronze fittings. In and on the upper part of the early bidet models there was space for an array of ‘cleaning tools’ to aid in the washing process. A French manual on feminine hygiene dating from 1772 provides information on what could be in the little bottles and jars: ‘Attending to the cleanliness of the delicate parts of the body is an unavoidable necessity. These parts must be washed every day, with all manner of aromatic herbs or alcohol-containing liquids added to the water used for this purpose.’
Three bidet designs by Jean Charles Delafosse, Paris, around 1770
Three bidet designs by Jean Charles Delafosse, Paris, around 1770, show how elaborate this hygiene furniture for the upper classes could be in the 18th century. MAK – Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Wien

A piece of furniture with an erotic component

The association of personal hygiene with eroticism that was widespread particularly during the 18th century, as evidenced by explicit descriptions in the memoirs of playboy writer Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), has always been reflected in the visual arts. So it goes without saying that the bidet in particular, because of its intimate purpose, also excited erotic male fantasies. This is particularly vividly illustrated in the painting by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845): we are looking at a young woman; she’s already partly dressed – or is she partly undressed? Her bodice is fastened, her stockings are tied with ribbons above the knee and her shoes are laced. The woman is sitting ‘astride’ her bidet, facing its upright section; the association with the ‘little horse’ is vividly brought to life here. The padded cover, which allows the bidet to be used as a seat when closed, sits on the floor behind her. With one hand she is pulling up her petticoat. As was still common in the 18th century, the lady is wearing no knickers; had she been wearing any, they would have been knee-length and completely open between the legs. With her free hand, the woman is washing herself. The defoliated rose in the foreground, an explicitly suggestive symbol in this pictorial context, speaks for itself. Combined with the lady’s inviting smile and her direct eye contact with the viewer, this gives the intimate washing scene an erotic component.
‘La Toilette intime ou la Rose effeuillée’, painted by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845), year and location unknown.
‘La Toilette intime ou la Rose effeuillée’, painted by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845), year and location unknown. Wikimedia

For many, an object of shame

As the 19th century progressed, bidets also found their way into the bedrooms of the upper middle class. Around 1900, as a result of advances in technology and plumbing, they were increasingly found – together with the flushing toilet, the washbasin and the bathtub – installed in the new bathrooms, which were specially set up for washing purposes and were separate from the other private chambers. Now plumbed into the water system, fitted with a water intake or a jet of water – the so-called Unterdusche for intimate rinsing – or even a shower hose, the bidet became even more widespread in the first half of the 20th century. After World War II it also started to be found in many middle-class homes. Despite its wide distribution, from the 19th century onwards the bidet and its use were also fraught with shameful connotations, especially in circles and countries in which prudishness prevailed. In addition to the issue of intimate hygiene, which was increasingly becoming a taboo topic, this also had to do with the additional sexual associations of its intended purpose. Portable seated washbasins were already well known in antiquity; Greek marriage contracts stipulated the provision of these items for vaginal rinsing before and after intercourse. The modern bidet was also used for contraception – although it was admittedly very unreliable. Catalogues of 19th and early 20th century manufacturers of sanitaryware advertised the bidet under product names such as ‘Protector’. Doctors recommended the use of the bidet to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. So, as you can imagine, the bidet was also encountered in many brothels – further reinforcing its dubious reputation, presumably.
Brassaï (Gyula Halász), La Toilette dans un hôtel de passe, rue Quincampoix á Paris, photograph, Paris 1932.
Brassaï (Gyula Halász), La Toilette dans un hôtel de passe, rue Quincampoix á Paris, photograph, Paris 1932. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Denounced by the guardians of public morals, in the USA in particular the bidet was long regarded as immoral and was therefore disapproved of. In 1900, the classy Ritz Hotel in New York is said to have removed its newly installed bidets because the keepers of virtue objected to their presence. One anecdote about the bidet tells of an uninformed American woman in a French hotel who, speaking to the chambermaid about the bidet she had just been shown, exclaimed: ‘Oh, how lovely! Is it to wash the babies in?’ The Frenchwoman replied: ‘No, it is to wash the babies out.’ The newly acquired knowledge is said to have left the astonished guest red-faced with embarrassment.

Declining demand since the 1960s

Following the introduction of the Pill and other relatively reliable contraceptives in the 1960s, but particularly due to the increasingly widespread habit of the daily shower, bidet sales fell dramatically. While they’re still a standard item of bathroom equipment in many southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal, they are disappearing in Switzerland. Bidets are rarely installed in new buildings nowadays. So it’s hardly surprising that many people no longer know their actual purpose. For some the bidet is used to wash their feet, or for handwashing. And why not indeed?

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