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

iStock
iStock

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.

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER