First came covered sewers, then indoor plumbing and flush toilets. Now, one bathroom at a time, another major shift in toilet hygiene is quietly under way.
A new generation of toilets may one day make toilet paper — and the need to put one's hands anywhere near the unspeakable — seem like chamber pots and outhouses: outdated and somewhat messy throwbacks reserved for camping trips.
Unlike traditional toilets, the high-tech version washes from behind and — if desired — in front with water. Better models allow for temperature, direction and pressure control, and have retractable spritzing wands and automatic driers as well.
The best feature warm seats, automatic motion sensors to raise the lid, buttons to raise the seat, nightlights, self-cleaning mechanisms, music to mask unpleasant sounds, deodorizer spritzers and other conveniences.
"Paper just distributes the problem," said Lenora Campos, a spokeswoman for Georgia-based Toto USA. Toto, the Japanese company that pioneered the modern electronic toilet seat, has sold 34 million of them globally.
"We wash most things with water and wouldn't dream of wiping a dish or anything else with a piece of paper and calling it clean. So why should personal hygiene be any different?"
Toto began marketing the Washlet in Japan in 1980. Now 74 percent of Japanese households have toilets of the high-tech persuasion, making them more common there than home computers.
The concept of electronic toilets that cleanse with water — widely known as bidet toilets or Washlets — has spread internationally over time, and dozens of companies around the world, including Inax, Brondell and Kohler, are producing them.
In the U.S., "bidets were always seen as European, and an oddity of the French," said Rose George, author of "The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters."
In addition to general squeamishness about discussing the way we clean ourselves, some in the U.S. worried about the high-tech toilets' requirement that a grounded electrical outlet be nearby, or thought the early control panels made the toilets look clumsy.
That said, the predecessor to modern high-tech toilets was actually invented in the United States, by Arnold Cohen of Brooklyn, who patented a pedal-operated seat he'd designed as a sort of sophisticated sitz-bath to help his ailing father.
He founded the American Bidet Company in 1964, marketing his product as an "American way to bidet" and "the first wash and dry toilet." But the subject was considered too vulgar for ads.
Toto came up with a more sophisticated version and by 1980 had trademarked the Washlet.
Sleek, electronic and no longer marketed as primarily a bidet, it became available in the U.S. in 1989. But it took another 20 years for mainstream American vendors like Home Depot and Lowes to embrace the technology and for prices to come down enough for average consumers.
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