20 Strange Housing Features and What They Were Used For!

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Walking into an older home can be like stepping into a time machine. Old home features tend to stand out because they are as fascinating to us young folks as they are unusual. What does this metal grate near the front door mean? Why are there buttons in the middle of old wooden floorboards? What in the heck is this bed doing inside of a wall? If these questions have been on your mind, you’ve come to the right place for some answers.

Today, we are going to take you on a walk down the mysterious and strange housing features from years gone by!

Mini Elevator / Kitchen Dumbwaiter

Don’t let the name fool you, the dumbwaiter was one of the most important tools in bustling homes from yesteryear. A dumbwaiter is simply a small freight elevator that was designed to move objects from one floor to the next. You’ll find dumbwaiters in homes of all sizes, though they were predominantly found in wealthier dwellings in the 1840s.

Rotary Phone Niche

In the land before wireless cell phones, homeowners were forced to rely on barbaric landlines. If you had a rotary phone, you remember how bulky and hard to handle they were. As a result, architects began incorporating these little alcoves into walls throughout homes. While adorable, we wouldn’t bring back rotary phones just to have these design elements in our house!

The Murphy Bed

Murphy Beds are also known as wall beds. These space-saving sleeping areas rose to prominence in the early 1900s. You might recognize these wall beds from a variety of sitcoms (including Friends!) but they’ve since been largely phased out. If you are in an older building in a crowded city, don’t be surprised if you find your own Murphy Bed!

Medicine Cabinet Slit

If you’ve ever owned a medicine cabinet in an older home, you might have run into this mysterious housing feature. Nothing more than a little slit inside of the medicine cabinet, this feature was for the disposal of razor blades. Used razor blades could be safely deposited behind the medicine cabinet, though we can only imagine how many have accumulated over the years!

Transom Windows Above Doors

In the time before electricity became common, homeowners would have to find any light that they could. Transom windows are just horizontal windows built above doors and windows alike to invite extra light in. While you’ll still find transom windows in modern houses, they are largely a thing of the past.

Standing Cabinet Icebox

Do you have a wooden cabinet in your home without any specific use? The odds are pretty good that you are looking at a standing cabinet icebox. Iceboxes were a 20th-century cooling solution. A professional ice delivery truck would bring ice every week where it would be stored within the home’s icebox. While certainly fashionable, we’ll stick to modern refrigeration!

Buttons in the Floor

Have you ever found a button on the floor of your home? This potentially random button is likely something known as a ‘butler button’. During the 1900s, these buttons came into fashion as a calling mechanism for the serving staff. Architects designed the buttons around the floor because there was no standard when it came to table sizes. 

Convenient Laundry Chute

Probably the most common housing feature on our list, laundry chutes are still relatively common to this day. Houses that featured more than a single story would often have a laundry chute to facilitate more efficient chores. Simply toss your dirty clothes down the chute before heading downstairs to clean.

Summer Kitchens in the Yard

You’ll find that many larger homes in the North Eastern United States will feature an additional building on the property. This second building was typically built as a summer kitchen, a place where servants and slaves alike would work on evening meals. Most popular throughout the 19th century, summer kitchens were designed to be cool and efficient.

Staircase Boot Scraper

In a time before cars were commonplace, and walking was the norm, your home would have to have a boot scraper installed near the front door. These metal features are used for quickly cleaning the bottom of your boot. This feature would keep you from needing to take off your shoes before entering a home.

Old Kitchen Desks

Kitchen desks were popular in the early 19th century and they can still be found in older homes throughout the nation. Kitchen desks were typically just free-standing cupboards that created an additional workspace for chores or meal preparation. Also known as Hoosier Cabinets, these old kitchen desks would thrive from 1890 until the early 1920s.

The Pittsburgh Potty

Finding a second and solitary toilet standing in the basement can be a surprise. However, you will often find Pittsburgh Potties in homes built around World War II. These free-standing toilets were put in place to detect potential sewage backups rather than actual use. If your Pittsburgh Potty is overflowing, you have problems elsewhere in the house!

Picture Rails Along Walls and Ceilings

Interior design has changed significantly over the past hundred years. In the 1840s, it became popular for architects to design rail lines that traced both the wall and the ceiling. You could easily hang a picture from these rails without actually damaging your wall. While we have all seen these rail lines, they went out of fashion in the early 1940s.

Miniature Hidden Staircase

You don’t have to read mystery novels to know that a hidden staircase is always a cool discovery. Most hidden staircases can be found in older estates and larger mansions. These staircases often served as a secret path to the basement, attic, and kitchen. Often used by servants, these hidden staircases were installed to keep the serving folk ‘out of mind’ during festivities. Yeah, actually these staircases are kind of problematic.

Retro Cold Closets

Have you noticed a particular chill emanating from the closet in the corner of your house?  You might have a cold closet! These special pantries were designed as a space to hold and preserve vegetables and fruit. Similar to iceboxes, cold closets were installed in a time before widespread and accessible refrigeration. Cold closets were even great for keeping meat fresh!

Tiny Basement-Facing Door

It is hard to look at old basements and not marvel at how far we’ve come! In times gone by, old homes would be fueled by coal. A coal delivery man would travel around the neighborhood to drop coal into a small iron door that led directly into the basement. From there, homeowners could simply shovel their coal themselves.

The Oldschool Phone Jack

We are showing our age a little bit here, but phone jacks are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Originally installed in homes for a telephone landline, phone jacks are being phased out as more customers turn to wireless technology. Who doesn’t remember untangling massive phone lines to rig up their home computers?

Bee Infestation WITHIN Walls

Bees are enormously important to our environment and the world around us. With that being said, we aren’t sure if we would want to find a beehive inside of our home’s walls! Wall beekeeping used to be an intentional thing because it offered homeowners access to fresh honey without bees flying around. We have never needed honey that bad.

Light Switches With Buttons

The traditional light switch is such a simple mechanism, it’s hard to imagine that an alternative exists. With that being said, button light switches used to be the norm! Despite being outdated for more than 100 years, we still find the button light switch to be visually pleasing. Besides, who doesn’t like pressing buttons?

Adorable Milk Cabinet

An adorable little white cabinet on the side of your house would typically represent a milk cabinet. Milkmen would travel from neighborhood to neighborhood in the early hours of the morning to deliver milk, cheese, butter, and eggs. Did you know that some people have their milk delivered to this day?


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