Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mystifying, Malodorous German Shelf Toilet

Don't worry, it's only a Mars bar. (thanks Tom D.!)
Much ink has already been spilled on the subject I am about to broach. Nonetheless, I feel that I would be remiss not to put in my two cents about such a fundamental, intimate and personal experience of the expat in Germany. A simple 'german + shelf + toilet' Google search reveals a plethora of blogs, journals, and commentaries – many treating similar topics to my own humble blog – that have pondered the curiosity that is the German shelf toilet. Scott Anderson's take from 2003 not only provides a competent description of the mechanisms and experiences behind the shelf, but also includes a useful diagram. Even Spiegel Online includes a crash course on what to expect from your #2 experience in their "Survival Bible" for foreigners living in Germany. This one simple search also reveals that the shelf toilet is in fact not solely a German phenomenon – the shelf can also be found in the water closets of the neighboring Dutch, but has unsurprisingly been eschewed, to my knowledge, by the rest of the continent (this is not to say I prefer the stand-and-squat design still popular in the south).

Having read most of these German toilet treatises, I tend to agree with the most common conclusion that the only possible advantage that can come from designing a toilet that leaves your poo high and dry (and noxious) is the ability to examine the viscosity, texture, color, and scent of said excrement. Now, although I can imagine a few scenarios when fecal research might be desirable (recovery of lost or ingested non-digestible objects), or even required (stool sample collection), this cannot possibly amount to more than 1% of all deuces. In the case you're a big believer that self-monitoring your own solid waste for health reasons, I personally think that viewing it in water is just as effective as dropping it onto a dry dock. Indeed, I would have expected renowned German engineering ingenuity to yield something more along the lines of a mechanically operated, optional shelf for those specific times when examination is called for, thus avoiding the abundance of disadvantages resulting from the presence of a shelf. These include but not limited to: intense miasma, flush failure (I don't view the incredibly insanitary shit-brush as a viable solution to this problem), and discrimination against long-accepted male peeing positions.

'Der Dukatenschei├čer' 
The overarching question, then, is whether Germans don't simply enjoy having a good look after they've finished up. This query invites a connection to a recent and controversial article by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair about how the alleged German obsession with feces and filth has affected the European economic crisis. Needless to say, his sweeping claims and questionable jumps of logic in linking shit with dubious financial instruments – most of which I will allow the reader to explore in the interest of brevity – invited a raft of mostly negative responses from all corners of the digital and analogue media realm (including the Economist, Mother Jones and the New York Times, to name a few). Just to give a brief example, he identifies the variety of words, phrases, and even fairy tale characters (der Dukatenscheisser, or 'money shitter') that are connected with feces, and discusses Hitler's overuse of the word Schei├čkerl (~ eng. "shithead"). These examples are mostly drawn from a 1984 article by anthropologist Alan Dundes. Though I think this is all very interesting, and a tempting invitation to connect this with the above discussion about the motivations behind the aforementioned toilet design, I don't think we can chalk up the existence of the shelf to a tenuous claim about German fascination with poo. In my limited international experience, Americans or Australians or Lebanese or Italians are just as likely to be interested in their excrement as the Germans. I, for one, am content to conclude that the shelf is a peculiarity of German (and Dutch!) WC-culture, and that the natives' seeming indifference to the design is simply a result of it being familiar. Without doing any objective research, it's also my impression that the next generation of bowls seem to be trending away from the shelf. But if you're in the market for a new toilet and don't want to follow the crowd on bowl design in the U.S., simply Google 'toilettenbecken + Abgang + waagerecht' and you're in business.


  1. Hello again! Another interesting post. Slowly working through the, I am not procrastinating anything at all. Another interesting phenomena with the shelf toilets. Shelf toilets could be related to a few things: 1) The first is the elimination of "splash up" phenomena that occurs with a water filled bowl; it is unclear whether this was felt to be a medical necessity (see the next two reasons) or just sanitation. I don't not know of any theory related to water from toilets. The second and third reasons are more based on your assertion that germans as a culture tend to examine their stools. 2) The birthplace of modern gastroenterology is in Germany and Austria....a coincidence or is it a national obsession? 3) The third thought, and my personal favorite, is that Germany is also home to a multitude of early parasitologists. Tapeworm life cycle was found by a german priest and I believe it was proven by another german physician that fed known tainted meat to death row inmates and dissected out the grown tapeworm (dubious ethical standards). Perhaps because of a heavy beef and pork eating society, the shelf is historically for looking for worms? My money is there.

  2. I would think the porcelain shelf came after the need for regular fecal examination. I'm with you that the point of the shelf and the dry landing facilitated by it was designed to avoid any chance of a splash landing.

    On another note, perhaps because I have German ancestry and am subconsciously feces-obsessed, I have always wanted to invent a toilet that will tell me the weight of my deposit. Maybe the volume and density too. I just think it'd be neat to compare. I am now thinking I might really have a market in Germany.

  3. Todd, I'm glad you liked my photo of the candy bar in the toilet. It's a Snickers bar btw. I took that in May of 2010. My mother was grossed out by the toilet in our Ferienwohnung so I wanted to document it.

    Tom D

  4. I love it! And I just realized I completely forgot to toss a credit in there. Sorry!

  5. I think the picture is the actual solution to this dilemma. The shelf toilet is designed so that if a snickers bar falls in it, you can still eat it (after blowing on it a couple of times) without feeling psychologically threatened (cause it's not as if it had fallen in the real WC-water)

  6. I couldn't have said it better, Federico.

  7. I think the shelf toilet is simply an old fashioned design! Most that I have encountered in Germany were in altbau buildings.

    I also don't think they are just a German/Dutch acutriment. Remembering my childhood, when I visited my grandfather or my aunt, who lived in the Bronx. They had your so called shelf toilets. I found them funny as a child! These were also the WC's that had the water tank high up on the wall with a pull chain. Once again, these were old tenement buildings, similar to the German Altbau. So I am simply saying that I think it's just an old fashioned toilet, still in use in Germany. That's all!