Here’s a culture lesson for you: The Pooh Shelf.

ONE THING YOU would notice if you visited our house is the toilet features.  This house has a full cast of toilet equipment.  The urinal, and the bidet are star players in the cast,  but the headliner is the poop shelf.   

Consider for a moment the nuance of the US toilet (and most German toilets for that matter). The simple design consists  of a bowl that contains standing water.  You probably haven’t stopped to appreciate the mechanics of that toilet design, but the benefit of standing pool of water is that  it immediately isolates anything that should fall into the pool from the breathable air around it.   Maybe that doesn’t seem like an important peice of the operation…but that’s one of those things where the saying is true: You don’t miss it until it’s gone.

The Poop shelf toilet (I did not coin that name) is a relic of Germany and some other regions in Europe that isn’t in circulation so much anymore, but since our house happened to be built a long time ago 2 out of our 3 toilets are of this variety.  It  works completely differently than a standard toilet. Instead of having a standing pool of water, the toilet is essentially dry (except for a very thin pool of water) and the bottom of the toilet is flat – like a shelf.  When you flush the toilet, a torrent of water rushes from the back of the bowl towards the front, sweeping everything in its path like a tsunami into a drain in the front.  On the plus side, it works…you’re not going to clog a poop shelf toilet no matter how matter how many kilos of hard cheddar you ate before bed last night.

But the one fatal flaw of the poop shelf is that anything that should happen to ‘settle’ on the poop shelf  remains exposed to open air. Some expats have come to describe this as the “lay and display” method.   It’s all fully and completely exposed, able to breathe into the air like a spring bouquet of roses…

Now I, for one,  happened to be in the habit of taking a few extra minutes on the pot every now and again to catch up on the daily news (when you have a house full of five kids, you’ll take all the quiet time  you can get).  But with the poop shelf toilet you can get rid of your dog-eared copy of Uncle John’s Reader, because believe me – you’re not going to want  to spend a second more time in there than you absolutely have to.   It’s a little bit like a campground latrine experience, except the latrine happens to be located adjacent to your kitchen. 

Flushing isn’t the end of the matter either. Although the flush is powerful, it never seems like the porcelain washes entirely clean. Thanks to the poop shelf I was able to expand my German vocabulary: “Bremsspuren“, Loosely translated, it means you have to keep a toilet brush handy.  Fortunately our toilets come equipped with a convenient holder.  (Uh…now who’s going to wash out the brush?)

As if that weren’t enough, our family adds a twist.  Every child growing up has their little idiosyncracies.  Of course, among Camden’s is this: He is occasionally reluctant to flush the toilet.   In the US, that was a little bit annoying.  Now, in our bathroom now it’s not just annoying, when you open the door to the bathroom  it borders on a  medical emergency.

I’ve asked around from time to time on why the design of the poop-shelf toilet is still in circulation.  The only thing I’ve ever heard as a rationale is that it’s an easier design in which to collect a stool sample. And no doubt, that it is.  We’ll post a photo journal of that as soon as we’ve had an opportunity to test that out.

20 thoughts on “Here’s a culture lesson for you: The Pooh Shelf.

  1. The shelf-design (or washout toilet as they are officially known) also used to be a popular design in Holland (The Netherlands). Since I grew up in The Netherlands, I know everything there is to know about the proper usage of a washout toilet.

    There are two things you have to do, in order to make the washout toilet as joyful to use as our old trusty US ‘standing-full-of-water’ toilets. These two things are:
    1) Using toilet paper before sitting down
    2) The double flush…

    Firstly, before you sit down to go Number Two, you cover the shelf with toilet paper. Only about approximately two stripes of paper, each two papers long, are needed to cover the shelf. Covering the shelf will make sure you don’t get the dreaded skid marks after you’re done.

    Secondly, you apply the double-flush technique. The moment Number Two hits the toilet, you immediately flush. This will prevent unwanted scents to accumulate.

    After the first flush, you can keep sitting down and enjoy your book or newspaper. After you’re done and have made your behind all sparky clean, you apply the second flush to get rid of the toilet paper.

    And that’s all there is to it, really. The toilet paper put in the bowl before sitting down will make sure you don’t have skid marks, and the double-flush will make sure no one will know you ever went!

  2. there was also a huge worms epidemic in germany due to the amount of pork that is eaten.
    i was told thet this was the reason for the shelve

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  5. Thinking logically, this toilet is more sanitary than a toilet that the water can splash up on to your skin.

  6. I might also add, that I have been vegan for more than 8 years, and my poo no longer carries that disgusting odor of rotting corpses. People need to stop accepting that filthy, morbid smell as ‘normal’. Smell is supposed to be a sense, right? And corpse is scientifically classified as filth, right?

  7. So happy for you that this article has offered you yet another opportunity to look down your vegan nose at the rest of us, who consume a normal diet.

  8. “I have been vegan for more than 8 years, and my poo no longer carries that disgusting odor of rotting corpses.”

    Jesuschrist, “rotting corpses” — could you stop it, please? BTW, have you ever compared the smell of your shit to that of rotting corpses? If you haven’t been struck by the obvious difference immediately, then you are either disqualified from comparing odors entirely, or you must have had *serious* gastrointestinal issues.

    First off, on a sufficiently abstract moral level I also do oppose the idea of eating meat. But this doesn’t change the biological fact that meat can actually be quite efficiently digested. (See e.g. how predators have much shorter bowels and digestion cycles than plant eaters.)

    As to the demagogy of that “rotting corpses”: one could as well say that vegans contort their body to function as inefficient fermenting tanks full of bacteria trying to rot away indigestible plant residues, and quite accordingly, they also fart obscenely stinky gases all the time, like cows do. (But I won’t actually say that, as that would be only as true as your offhand allusion, i.e. not very much.)

    So, vegan poop can be every bit as smelly as meat-eaters’, and I can attest to that experimentally. (Some say only for the transition period, some won’t be as lucky. And some will just deny.)

    (One fairly balanced source, and a vegan one:

  9. To the other comment of Reality Cheque: “this toilet is more sanitary than a toilet that the water can splash up on to your skin.”

    That’s a very good point. Some people (like my wife) do prefer the shelf-type for exactly that reason. (I just lay some paper on the water surface, and the splash problem is solved.)

    To the author: Nice overview! 🙂 Just one remark: that “works completely differently than a standard toilet” is a bit of a stretch. 😉 It actually works almost exactly the same way as the other type: the size, the connections, the tank, the valves, the flushing, the siphon etc. etc. they are all the same. That dreaded shelf is just an extra “station” on the journey, for one reason or another (as discussed).

  10. For your information, those toilets are very useful for cleansing purposes. When you fast and then you break it, you can except all kinds of stuff coming out. The shelf style bowl help you see what the hell is going on inside your bowels. It also helps you notice if you are eating too much of something that may be clogging your intestines. I prefer this model as the modern one, specially if the architects are not retarded and design bathrooms with windows.

    • I am so curious to know what you look for specifically to assess how your body is functioning. Do you have anything that you look for specifically?

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  12. My dad is currently dying of cancer, and while I was visiting him, he randomly mentioned something about the German toilets having a poo shelf. I Googled to find a picture, and your blog post came up. I read it aloud to my parents, and we laughed until tears were literally running down my dad’s face–happy tears, after too many sad tears that day. Thanks for giving us a moment of brevity!

    P.S. Is there more splashback or less splashback for a male standing to pee in this waterless toilet vs. an American one? (Or are these toilets the reason German men have traditionally sat down to pee?)

  13. I’m Chilean, born, bred and currently living in Chile. I visited Europe 2 years ago and I had some close encounters with that type of toilets. I hated them. They’re bloody disgusting, too much for my Chilean soul. I’m not particularly squeamish regarding blood and medical stuff, even autopsies and rotting bodies, but I can’t stand vomit or poop odour.

  14. No. It is because you wont get the nice splash of water over your balls and asshole when crap drops in the water. It means you dont waste a pile of paper on every crap you take just to keep that splash from happening.

  15. The shelf toilet was designed at a time (late 1800’s/early 1900’s) when intestinal worms such as roundworms, tapeworms, and especially the highly contagious whip worms were a common and repeating affliction and so they wanted to be able to inspect the feces for the presence of the vermin so they could take the appropriate vermicide. Intestinal worms are such a rarity in today’s western world that people forget how common they used to be in the past. While growing up in Germany in the 1950’s, my mom used the shelf feature to detect whip worms my their 4 year old child’s (me) feces and gave me the appropriate vermicide. This worm infestation would have been much more difficult to detect in her children if she had a conventional toilet in her house.

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