Demystifying the world of the German toilet

Demystifying the world of the German toilet

That’s right, we’re going where others fear to tread - to the toilet. What’s with the two flushes? And the shelf? Why is the German toilet forcing me to inspect my stool before bidding it farewell? We have all the answers.

Modern German toilets: a short history

For most of their history, toilets have been just a humble hole in the ground. In Germany, the question of when the first modern toilet was piped in is fraught with differing answers. However, the history of toilets cannot be told without mentioning Alexander Cumming. Back in 1775, the Scottish inventor of the S-bend took the world by storm and truly changed toilet history.

While the Brits are indebted to Prince Albert for the Christmas tree, one theory suggests that Queen Victoria gifted Germany something even more magical - a flushing toilet with Cumming's S-bend. Thanks to her regular visits to Ehrenburg Castle to see her extended family in Rhineland-Palatinate, a running-water toilet was imported from England and installed in the castle in the 1860s for the Queen to use when she was staying. Today, this is the earliest modern toilet that still exists in Germany.

Victorian sanitary movements in 1830s Britain meant that sanitation reform far preceded any such developments in Germany. But in both countries, it was a long time before toilets really caught on. By the 1880s, Cumming’s design had already been updated by Thomas Crapper, becoming the U-bend design we still use today.

Only after the turn of the century did toilets with running water become more widely used, as homes were piped into a mains water supply and sewage systems were further developed across Germany. That's not, however, to say that people enjoyed the same level of convenience we have today: as late as 1968, around 12 percent of houses in West Berlin were still without a private toilet, with the Klo often located midway down the stairs in a block of flats. 

Today, the vast majority of people in Germany can enjoy the comfort of their very own toilet. But there is still one design development dating back to the 1850s that haunts modern toilet users in the federal republic: the shallow flush, more commonly known as the "poo shelf". As it turns out, Great Britain is also responsible for this infamous design, first patented by English sanitary engineer George Jennings. The shallow flush or "washout" toilet was a common feature of toilets around Europe until the 1970s.

But with remaining washout toilets now dwindling in number and only to be found in older buildings across a limited number of European countries, many people who come across them for the first time in Germany erroneously believe they are a uniquely German design. The phrase coined by many expats taking to Google out of confusion is therefore "the German poo shelf". 

The German poo shelf

Formally known as the Flachspüler, the German "poo shelf" toilet bewilders because of the way it promotes a face-to-feces experience unwelcomed by most.

Rather than shying away from the natural process of our bodies, German toilet shelves display what one has left behind and offer it up for inspection. It might seem strange to some, but the shelf was actually once very popular because of two design benefits:

  1. It prevents splashing during your visit for a number two, unlike in standard toilets today, where splashing can be common, or toilets in the United States, where the toilet bowl is typically almost full.
  2. It helps you keep track of your remains for health reasons.

But of course, there are other ways your visit can be messy when a poo shelf is involved. Without gravity as a tidying aid, the poo shelf requires a wild torrent flush to sweep away your excrement, and while the flush is powerful, it is seldom enough to leave a squeaky clean bowl, meaning this might be the moment you think to learn the word “Bremsstreifen” (skid marks).

Another aspect that first-time users of the Flachspüler can find challenging is being faced with their own offensive odours. Between deposit and flushing, the Flachspüler leaves your droppings exposed to the air, unlike the toiler design in vogue today, which is designed to encourage your waste into the toilet water immediately and spare you from whatever awful smells it brings with it. Indeed, these two drawbacks are probably the main reasons the poop shelf toilet has fallen out of grace in modern-day Europe. 

Beyond the poop shelf: Locks, taps and lights in German toilets

But that's not where the confusion ends. On your visit to the toilet in Germany, you may meet other technologies you are unfamiliar with, namely German lock, flush, tap and light designs. 

During your trip to the “stilles Örtchen” (silent place), the light switch might be the first to bemuse you, not because it is difficult to function, but because it is often located on the outside of the door rather than inside the bathroom. This means that in Germany you are vulnerable to accidentally having to do a poo in the dark. Let’s hope you have sympathetic children, partners or flatmates who aren't partial to pranking. 

If you want some privacy, the next step will be to lock the door behind you. In Germany, bathroom locks can differ quite a lot compared to those found in the United States, for example. Two of the most common varieties to find include an oblong knob just below the handle or a simple key in the lock. These keys can be quite finicky, but don’t worry, just have a little patience and wiggle it around until you get the right spot.

Once you have done your business it is time to appreciate the great invention that is the flushing toilet. Things have come far in Germany since Queen Victoria's years on the throne, with most toilets in Germany today boasting more than one flushing option - half or full - which can be chosen depending on the nature of your visit to the toilet and how much force you think is required to send it away.

Alongside the double flush toilet, another genius element of German bathrooms means that you can find the perfect temperature to wash your hands before you step back out into the world. They don’t have two bathroom taps, but one, which can be moved between hot and cold to find the perfect temperature for your handwashing experience. Enjoy!

Tell us about your experience with German toilets

Has your experience with German toilets been a good one so far? A horror? Let us know in the comments below.

Thumb image credit: Pack-Shot /

Olivia Logan


Olivia Logan

Editor for Germany at IamExpat Media. Olivia first came to Germany in 2013 to work as an Au Pair. Since studying English Literature and German in Scotland, Freiburg and Berlin...

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