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A technical question

Clearly an off day here at Samizdata. So maybe today is the day for a question which I found via b3ta.com. This is a question that has always troubled me, ever since I first encountered the problem.

Warning. If you do not like questions about toilets, and in particular about how disgusting they can be when they are being really, really disgusting, then stop reading now. I mean it. This is not a nice posting. This is a crappy posting. But the way I see it, after the previous posting, I have nothing left to lose, dignity-wise.

Okay, here it is:

German toilets are quite extraordinary. Other European toilets – well, the ones that aren’t merely holes in the floor – work much like their North American cousins. They are shaped a little differently, but the basic principle is the same: the excrement either lands directly in the water or it slides down a steep slope into the water, before being flushed away. Simple, effective and clean. See?

There then follows a picture of a North American cousin type toilet. But now, and this is your last chance to stop reading this if your disgustingness threshold is low, comes this basic and most troubling fact:

Not so the German toilet.

Last chance. Okay, you asked for it.

The excrement lands on a bone-dry horizontal shelf, mere inches beneath one’s posterior. Repeated flushings are required to slide the ordure off the shelf into a small water-filled hole, from which it hopefully disappears. See?

And then there’s a picture of that, in section, as we ex-architecture students say.

And the rest of the piece can be boiled down to a one word summary: Why? What on earth, on the sun, and on all the other planets in circulation around the sun, is the point of this arrangement? Why do they do this???

The Samizdata commentariat has a growing reputation in the blogosphere for its combination of intellectual scrupulousness, technical savvy, and for its general ability to see the larger picture, to sense what are the important things in life and what are not. So people, let’s get this thing understood, and if necessary dealt with. Either we establish once and for all that there is a good reason for this apparently senseless, not to say plague inviting arrangement, and that it really does have a good reason, and then tell the world about it, or we establish that there is no good reason for this arrangement and we set in motion the (if the latter is the case) long over-due process of putting a stop to it.

The internet is a powerful thing, with a global reach. Time to use the its powers for good once again.

37 comments to A technical question

  • Dave S.

    A friend of German descent, who has traveled to Germany and has family there, tells me that Germans are quite interested in the state of their shit. The shelf apparently permits better observation.

    I shit you not.

  • My roommate is Dutch, and he has described this phenomenon to me before. He thinks it’s to prevent “splashback”.

  • Being neither German nor of German descent (unless Anglo-Saxon 1500 or so years ago counts as “of German descent”) but having lived in Germany for five years, I agree with Dave S’s German friend and am entirely unconvinced by the Dutch “splashback” theory.

    These bizarre contraptions are, however, being flushed down the toilet of history. You don’t see them anywhere that was built or renovated in the last twenty or thirty years.

  • William

    I have come across many of these toilets in the Netherlands. Thankfully they are being gradually replaced. The reason for their peculiar design was to enable “user’s” to peruse the prdouct an aid toward determining one’s state of health. I also shit you not.

  • Austrian toilets are the same.

  • diana

    I had always heard that it was for close perusal purposes. I was born in Germany, but can claim no expertise unfortunately since we moved before the rot set in. I am a British expat living in Texas and am proud to claim a healthy poo paranoia. Having travelled all over the world and at one time owned a bed and breakfast, I can assure you that the cultural connotations that can be attributed to the b.m are limitless (and horrific) (and disgusting). But thankyou for the happy break from all things war and economy……

  • I’m glad to see this painful issue is still haunting the educated public. In reply, may I ask why many British and Irish lavatories still lack water mixers? And why do most people use the QUERTY layout instead of the supposedly more efficient Dvorak?

    By the way, most old Soviet toilets (I don’t mean outhouses of course — their design should be a topic for yet another learned dispute) were German-style; I estimate only 15% to 20% were American-style, of the steep slope variety. The only difference from the description above is that there is a shallow concavity in the horizontal shelf where water always remains so the shelf is not really dry, which prevents excessive adhesion.

    These days, we are witnessing a decisive decline in those German heritage contraptions.

  • Because of idiotic U.S. national water conservation rules (which apply whether you live in the desert or on a big river), new toilets have to use less water to flush. Having recently remodelled part of my house, I now have a couple of these wonders of modern technology.

    Instead of a big pool of water for things to sink into, there is now a tiny little puddle. Hence frequently there are ugly brown things on the side of the toilet, after the flush. Hence repeated flushing is often needed (defeating the whole idea in the first place), and even that doesn’t always do the job.

    These are, however, amazing devices. To make up for the lack of water mass, they use pressurized water to flush, storing the pressure in a pneumatic chamber in the flush tank. The result is, as my plumber so crudely put it:

    “This thing can flush a hamburger!”


  • NC3

    I wonder what Mr. Crapper would say about all this?

  • So Germans are almost literally up their own arses. You don’t say.


  • Ron

    I first encountered these in Austria when I learnt to ski in the 1980’s.

    If you sit on it facing the cistern you can aim your log straight into the little water hole.

    Unfortunately this means that you have to take off all your clothing from waist down (excluding socks & shoes obviously!) to allow your feet to be placed each side of the rear of the bowl.

  • Ron

    Perhaps Germans are like birds, which don’t have separate orifices but a combined “cloaca” – which enables them to squirt it all out from the front?

  • Beavis

    Dave S. is correct. It is for the study of our own excrement in a nice convienient way. 🙂

  • Alexei

    Wouldn’t be too sure about the Dvorak keyboard. See here

  • It is part of a conspiracy to bring about the New World Ordure…

  • Tim in PA

    I wondered about this question myself when I was over there, I assumed they didn’t want splashes. I’m not sure what is worse though, the shelf, or our crapy 1.6 Gallon Per Flush toilets.

  • RyMaN600

    That’s not the throne I want to be perched on if I have “the squirts”. Ugh, the smell, the acoustics…

  • refugee

    Apparently, German toilets are not the worst.

    One step up from the hole-in-the-floor are Japanese trough toilets, which require you to squat over a porcelein trough. My understanding is that these monsters are slowly dying out; nobody seems to like them.

    Here’s a couple of photographs and some useful traveler’s hints:

    Here’s a little slideshow on “How to use Japanese style toilet.”

  • Tim

    Schweinebandwurm ;pork tapeworm; Taenia solium.

    Nasty little bugger, if your diet is largely Pork you want to watch out for it so an inspection tray is a “good” idea.

  • Knuckle-dragger

    Regardless of design intent, as a practical matter using a German style toilet provides a vivid reminder that, “Yes – my shit does stink. A lot!”

    Perhaps they could be installed to good effect at various media centers, halls of government, and universities.

  • Sl;ight digression but the best of loos yet to be discovered, must be the Cambodian loo. A country which is beggining to realise the benefits of a porcelain seat, but has yet to rid itself of the ‘squat over a hole in the ground’ mentality. Here you will find an american style loo, but with two convieniant footrests either side ofthe bowl. At Angkor Wat last year I was delighted to see these seats in the tourist bogs, better still were the signs describing exactly how to crouch over a porcelaine bowl.

  • Tim’s explanation about pork worms is correct. I’d add that many Germans, especially the blue collar variety, traditionally enjoyed a treat called “Mett” – or “meat” in English, and this also posed problems with Phylum Annelida.

    Mett is comprised of raw beef, pork and horseflesh, on an incomparably tasty “broetchen” bread roll, with a little butter and black pepper. It’s a good pre-boozing snack that keeps the stomach settled whilst downing massive quantities of tasty lager (it’s a Northern German thing, as far as I can tell), although it’s not as efficacious as that other German pre-binge drinking treat, “Schmalzbrot.” In English, that translates to “fat bread” – a half inch of icy cold, salted lard, spread over some dense pumpernickel bread. At Christmas time, the lard is also mixed with sugar, and eaten outdoors with little tankards of hot Gluhwein. Mmmmmmm.

    Yep, you need the shelf in the Herman terlet to ensure you don’t have lotsa worms. Or speaking from experience after eating the Schmaltzbrot, to make sure no organs inadvertantly shot out.

    As for the other thing – the Asian or Middle Eastern hole-in-the-ground crapper – the U.S. military has an entertaining term for them, calling them the “bombsight shitter,” for rather obvious reasons.

    Al Maviva
    – A man who has studied toilets, after eating much wierd food and contracting dysentary twice.

  • “If you sit on it facing the cistern you can aim your log straight into the little water hole.”


  • JSAllison

    We were all convinced that in the German manuals on drill and ceremony there was a 4 count command for the proper performance of the post-dump inspection. Those silly Prussians, what will they think up next?

  • MB

    Well, this thread certainly clears up some questions I’ve had for some time! The variety of plumbing around the world, much of it counterintuitive to my middle-class American logic, never ceases to amaze me.

    My wife is Thai and her family lives in a north-central province of Thailand. My first visit there was both educational and and exercise in humility. I not only had to learn to use the squat toilet (which BTW is “flushed” by dipping a plastic bowl into a basin of water located next to the toilet and pouring the contents into the toilet, repeating the process as often as necessary in order to move the excretment down the septic line), I had to be re-educated in showering. My wife lead me into the bathroom, handed me a towel, and proceeded to leave. I look around quickly, and being unable to locate any familiar plumbing controls or spigots, I stopped her to ask exactly HOW one showers. She gave me a look that made me feel as if I were the biggest idiot she’d ever seen. There is a large rectangular tile basin filled with water, which reminded me of a bathtub, but much too tall to easily climb into. She then patiently explained that you take a bowl of water, douse yourself, soap up, and then douse youself again to rinse off. All very simple really. Just not exactly my Westernized idea of a modern shower!

  • MGZ

    “you sit on it facing the cistern you can aim your log straight into the little water hole.” Which is what I figured out and did in Moscou in 1964. Also, after flushing and thoroughly soaping the cistern clean, held down the button and washed my privies with the running water… no bath in that hotel room, dammit.

  • David Gillies

    How splendidly educational. This is what the Internet is for.

  • Tony H

    Sitting arsy-versy on the toilet to aim at the flush hole? Very anal, not to say profoundly weird… I wonder what these people do when confronted with a bidet.
    “Mett” doesn’t mean meat, it’s from the Anglo-Saxon “meti” for food, “fleisch” being meat… And as others have already noted, the trad rear drop-zone style is found usually in older German buildings: my wife’s parents’ house, built in the late 1950s, has them, but they seem pretty uncommon now. I never found they contributed to an increased stench factor compared with the splashy Anglo style, indeed they have a certain charm.

  • Peter Melia

    Sorry Chaps, you have all missed the point, which is, it is the result of an engineering cock-up.
    The Germans like “Form follows Function”, (as a famous German car firm used to advertise before they found that the rear end of their snazzy car lifted off the ground when it went around corners).
    The Poles invented the modern toilet and it was such a success in Warsaw, they exported it to Germany. The Germans quickly saw that it’s form impaired it’s function and improved matters by cutting a hole in the seat, with great success and and it worked (just as the snazzy car received a cute little spoiler on the tail) . This initial success blinded them to the other defect, the famous flat floor, and they have been blind to it to this day (the toilet, of course, not the snazzy little car).

  • so…this is what the world wars were all about…the acute german need for up to date plumbing supplies…

  • Patrick Banks

    Well, German toilet architecture would seem to be consistent with their … unique contribution to the world of pr0n.

  • harryj

    Faeces should always be carefully inspected for useful information. Colour; if black may indicate bleeding higher in the intestinal tract, or the presence of iron in the diet or medication. If red the bleeding will be lower in the intestinal tract. If yellow there may be obstruction of the bile tract. Worms of various shape may be seen from tapeworms to pin worms, hook worms and round worms. Loose to liquid stools may indicate intestinal hurry, while hard stools may indicate constipation due to bowel disease, low water intake or unbalanced diet.

    Occasionally with practice one may recognise ill omens such as impending New Labour anti British legislation, though in these cases reading the entrails of a left-liberal elite networker is often more accurate.

  • Dave Farrell

    Yes, it is to check the state of one’s stool (don’t try saying that out loud to anyone).

    Salvador Dali begins each day’s entry of his astonishing diaries with a description of the morning’s turd production.

    Even in this basic human function, apparently, Dali was different to the rest of us. He frequently reports his stools as pure white.

    He draws conclusions about his psychic and creative state from them too.

  • I lived with a German toilet with the shit-viewing platform as described for six months in 1983. I didn’t inspect each day’s bowel movements, but I did learn why there was a brush in a holder containing some “00” (Null-Null, a German toilet bowl cleaner) next to every toilet I encountered. Since flushing is ineffective in cleaning off the platform, you need to brush it with some Null-Null after each use. This has the effect of making your German toilet much cleaner than the ones where the turds fall into water. Those German toilets were cleaned multiple times every day. Most other (domestic) toilets are cleaned only once a week.

  • Donner und blitzen! If ze porcelain iz not flat, how do you stop ze picture of Churchill from sliding into ze water?

    Or Bobby Moore?

    Or Michael Owen?

  • Andrew Pearce

    A bit off topic, after staying in Uganda for a month, I was pretty sick of the long drop toilets. Imagine my delight in hearing a rumour that the hospital we would be working at had proper toilets.

    After saving up a turd for a couple of days before arrival, I excitedly went to the loo, to discover a normal western toilet, without a seat, buried up to the bowl in concrete ARRGH!

  • This sounds like a matter for the Privy Council.