Toilet Culture

As late as 1985, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard has his misanthropic character Reger,  in the novel Old Masters, declare that “Vienna has no toilet culture. Its toilets are scandalous. Even in the most famous hotels in the city, scandalous toilets are to be found.”

Ninety years earlier, the young would-be architect Adolf Loos, returning to Vienna in 1896 from a few wanderjahre in America, made a similar complaint. “Our taps, sinks, water closets, washstands, and other things are still far inferior to the English and American fittings. What must seem most remarkable to an American is that in order to wash our hands, we must first go down the hall for a jug of water since there are toilets that do not have washing facilities. In this respect America is to Austria as Austria is to China.”

What Loos failed to mention was that the presence of any toilet at all in most apartments of fin-de-siècle Vienna–with or without washing facilities–was still considered a luxury, and not only among the lower classes. In each of the city’s twenty-one districts, except the aristocratic first, the number of toilets was less than the number of dwellings, and in six of those it was less by more than forty per cent! The water supply was usually communal as well—a tap in the corridor served several tenants.

This paucity of sanitation facilities, however, was the source of a family fortune on my mother’s side. In 1891, her paternal grandfather, Leopold Guttmann, went from several years of working at the traditional Jewish trade of jeweler and watchmaker to proud purveyor of “commodes and chamber pots” with a patented hygienic, hermetically sealed cover guaranteed to be completely odorless. The communal water basins, known as “bassenas,” were among his products as well.

Leopold Guttmann was born in 1852 in the Carpathian mountain town of Sobotiste in what was then Hungary, but is now Slovakia. At the time, Sobotiste had a Jewish community of about 500 families, but for Leopold, like for most ambitious Jewish young men from the provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna beckoned.

I discovered him in the imperial capital via Vienna’s very helpful precursor of the telephone book–Lehmann’s General Directory. Founded in 1859, it listed the addresses of established residents as well as businesses and organizations. The 26-year-old Leopold appears there for the first time in 1878 living in the 8th district and working as a trader in watches. From that point on, year by year, “the Lehmann,” charts his progress. By 1885, he has a watch-making factory, two years later he is also a wholesaler in gold and silver, and in 1890, “L. Guttman” is an incorporated firm handling watches, gold and silver, and jewelry.

What a surprise then, when from one year to the next in 1891, the commodes and chamber pots with their hygienic covers suddenly appear as products of the firm. Lehmann lists a patent under the name Siemang-Guttmann. Siemang, I discovered, was one Stefan Siemang.  He was not only the holder of several earlier patents, but also a professional soldier, a First Lieutenant in the Artillery Division of the Imperial Army. What could have brought the army officer and the watchmaker/jeweler together? And why was it only Leopold Guttmann who made a flourishing business of their device? Further speculations on this connection and the growing success of Leopold’s enterprise to follow in the next post.

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One Response to Toilet Culture

  1. Cozinus says:

    Dear Cozina,
    Only now did I get around to reading all of your literary output in your blog and am needing and wanting to tell you how wonderfully interesting, carefully researched and utterly delightful they are!
    Love from Cosinus.

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