A wee tour of Berlin’s historic public toilets

11 , , , Permalink

If there’s one thing that unites the people of Berlin, it’s that we all, every now and again, have to go to the bathroom.

Public toilets were once a mainstay on this city’s streets, the most famous of which is the cutely nicknamed Café Achteck, or “Octagon Café.” A bit of architectural history unique to Berlin, these eight-sided urinal huts reached their heyday around 1910, when there were approximately 140 throughout the city. Today, there are only about 30 left, just a few of them restored and in working condition.

Achteck

A restored Café Achteck, via Flickr

Many of these historic public toilets were destroyed in the war, or demolished in the name of development and modernization. Some have been ingeniously converted into, for example, this Tunisian couscous restaurant or the Burgermeister joint at Schlesisches Tor. But one surviving toilet from 1910, a spin-off of the classic Café Achteck style, is not only still standing near my apartment, it’s also fully functional.

How have I lived in Berlin for six years and not once used one of these historic public toilets? (I have, however, used one of those modern, automated, coin-operated things, and can confirm that they are not, as they ludicrously claim, self-cleaning. Bleh.) I boldly set forth to where no female I know has ventured before and went to give this toilet, one of the oldest in Berlin, a try. It’s located not far from where I live, at the corner of Sonnenallee and Elbestraße in Neukölln.

Elbestrasse

The man running the pizza shop on the corner eyed me suspiciously as I circled the Toilettenhäuschen and approached the ladies’ entrance. I’m sure he must witness all sorts of, shall we say, interesting characters coming and going through the toilet’s doors, the kind of characters who are responsible for the toilet being locked after 19.00 every evening. I wonder if there’s ever any lady-cruising in the women’s toilets, I thought to myself as I opened the door.

Damenklo

I had expected the worst, but the single-stall Damentoilette was much cleaner than expected, clean enough that I could breathe normally and didn’t feel the need to bathe in disinfectant afterward. I’ve used toilets in plenty of Berlin bars, restaurants, and theatres that were far grosser. Toilet paper, hand soap, a fully stocked paper towel dispenser–luxury! Finally, proof that the taxes I pay are being put to good use!

Toilet Diptych

As for all the long-lost historic public toilets, many of them architectural gems, this fascinating series of archival photos provides a comprehensive look. And one final tidbit of toilet trivia I learned in the writing of this post: the official term for public toilets is Bedürfnisanstalt, which is just so hilariously and absurdly formal, as German terminology can often be… It translates, roughly, as “institution for needs.”

 

11 Comments
  • Julia
    August 1, 2013

    Love your post! Couldn’t believe when I once heard that it was common practice until about 1910 (when public toilets were “invented” in Berlin) to let just go whatever you had to let go right where you stood. And that includes women with long skirts and dresses! Urgh! So the public toilets were really innovative!!

    • Hilda
      August 1, 2013

      Thanks for commenting! Yep, public toilets were pretty innovative at the time but unfortunately the Café Achteck had urinals for men only… not sure where women were supposed to go.

  • ebe
    August 1, 2013

    A surprisingly lovely post about toilets. I am a bit partial to toilet posts as I found similarities & differences fascinating. And thanks for the link to the series of archival photos! Might have to make an side trip to that particular loo at some point.

    • Hilda
      August 1, 2013

      Isn’t that collection of photos amazing? So grateful people like that are documenting these aspects of Berlin history.

  • kathryn
    August 1, 2013

    institution for needs haha! the design of the first one is just beautiful…

    • Hilda
      August 1, 2013

      Beautiful from afar, I’m sure! They probably smelled terrible back in the 1900s…

  • Federico
    August 4, 2013

    Every time I go to Burgermeister I can’t help thinking “They’re cooking stuff into a toilet!”, as if there were an actual danger of any kind. I’m sick. ^^

  • Kate (@shoegirlinDE)
    August 30, 2013

    This is fantastic! When I learned that about Burgermeister, I was a little grossed out – not that I could ever give up its nacho cheese fries! I must say, it’s not the beer or even the efficiency that makes me love Germany the most, it’s the bathrooms. Almost always clean and in working order. I know, I’m such a girl.

    • Hilda
      August 30, 2013

      Ever been to Japan? I bet you’d fall in love with the toilets there…

  • Anon
    September 29, 2014

    Berlin is a pain in the arse to find a bog. They need more. Especially free ones. Costing me a fortune. I could rent my own bog at this rate. 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *