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Why Aren't Bidets Common in the U.S.?

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In a famous scene from Crocodile Dundee, Mick Dundee stands in the bathroom of his upscale New York City hotel room toiling with the bidet, attempting by trial and error to determine what it is and how to use it.

The hotel where Dundee is sizing up the bidet must have been outfitted in European style. The majority of bathrooms in the U.S., including those in the fanciest hotels, often lack a bidet, and encountering one is just as likely to confound someone born and raised in the U.S. as it is a leathery, affable man from the Outback. When there is a porcelain toilet-side wash station installed in a U.S. bathroom, it is often an unexpected extra.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and parts of Europe and South America, people would find it unsettling to enter a washroom devoid of a bidet. As it turns out, the standard practice of something as basic as cleaning up after the restroom varies greatly in approach around the world.

Where there's a will, there's a bidet

The bidet is believed to have originated in France in the early 1700s, which is also where it found its name. Bidet means “horse” in French, or more specifically a “cob,” which is a strong, short-legged horse. For the uninitiated, the term is a visual allusion to how one is supposed to use the contraption. (Furthering the horse theme, Napoleon’s men also likely utilized the bidet to freshen up after long rides.)

One of the earliest-known bidets was installed in the bedroom—these were the days of bedside chamber pots, too—of the French royal family in 1710 by Christophe des Rosiers, who is widely credited as the bidet’s inventor. Pots and bidets eventually moved out of the bedroom, and as technology developed, so did both appliances. In 1750, for example, the bidet was upgraded with a hand pump to allow for spraying.

Since its first days providing cleanliness for French royalty, the bidet has spread internationally. It is considered standard in many European countries, particularly in Italy and Portugal, as well as in South American countries like Argentina and Venezuela. They also are commonly found in Middle Eastern countries and throughout East Asia, especially in Japan. According to estimates, bidets are present in about 80 percent of bathrooms in these areas.  

The American Way

One developed country conspicuously absent from that list is the U.S. Why the bidet never caught on stateside is a bit of a mystery. In 2007, NYU professor Harvey Molotch offered a few theories to The New York Times. Because the fixture was a French invention, it was rejected by the English, and that sentiment drifted across the pond. During World War II, the Times notes, American soldiers saw bidets in European brothels, "perpetuating the idea that bidets were somehow associated with immorality."

Another issue is bathroom size. Most bathrooms in the U.S. aren't big enough for an extra appliance. Whether this prevented the spread of bidets in the U.S. or bathroom size developed as such because extra room was unneeded (the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg debate) is unknown.

One of the most successful bidet models, interestingly enough, was invented in the U.S. in the 1960s by Arnold Cohen, also known as “Mr. Bidet.” As Cohen has said, when he first began marketing his model, 99 percent of people in the U.S. had never heard of or seen a bidet, which made sales stateside for American Bidet Company slow growing. A company named Toto Ltd. saw the potential and repackaged Cohen’s concept as a “washlet” in the 1980s. That hybrid toilet-bidet appliance is now installed in more than half of Japanese homes and, based on 2007 numbers, has sold in excess of 17 million.

Most people reared on the bidet perceive it as unsanitary to skip, while people used to solely paper tend to think similarly about using the bidet. Bidet proponents cite improved cleanliness, more comfort (less abrasion, to get specific) and environmental sustainability as reasons to hop on the bidet. It is estimated that in North America, where paper is the way to go, 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper go to waste annually.

While the opportunity for the clunky, standard bidet to catch on in the U.S. might have passed, manufacturers like Kohler are producing new iterations of the bidet, or at least incorporating underside-cleaning appliances into toilets. The fresh take might just work the bidet into more U.S. homes.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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