20 Mysterious Old Home Features That Aren’t Useful Anymore

Many old homes have perplexing features that baffle their modern-day owners. Here we've solved some of those mysteries.

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Metal Plates on Old Homes

These metal plates, which often are shaped as an “S”, an “X” or a star, are called anchor plates (or wall anchors). They are often seen on the outside of old bricks homes and are used to help prevent walls from bowing outwards and collapsing.

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Ice Door

Are you puzzled by the funny little door in your home’s pantry? This is an access door the ice delivery man used to use. Homes had an area in the pantry or kitchen dedicated to the icebox. Access was created for this door on the exterior, allowing for the delivery of fresh ice to the house without coming inside.

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Phone Niche

Landline telephones used to be an essential means of communication, but they weren’t always so compact. Because of their big, heavy stature, they required quite a bit of space. Homes used to have niches in walls for this purpose. Today, however, they’re a place to store things like mail or display a plant.

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Tiny Iron Door Leading to the Basement

While natural gas is the heating fuel of choice for many today, up until around 1940, most families heated their homes by burning coal.

Coal delivery men traveled door-to-door to provide people the fuel they needed to power their furnace. They shoveled coal through the small door and down the chute into the basement. Once in the basement, homeowners could shovel the coal directly into the furnace. Today most of these chutes have been sealed, though you will often still see the iron doors on older homes. What was once a functional part of the house is now a great conversation starter and history lesson.

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Some Features in Old Homes are Still Useful!

Although technology has brought homeowners huge advantages in improving their homes, there’s a lot of untapped wisdom in some of the old home features that have been phased out over time. Some of these inventions brought great use and quite a bit of charm to a home, but there’s one feature, in particular, that should return to homes because it would save many people trips up-and-down the staircase: Laundry chutes.

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Landline Phone Jacks

Take a look around your dated apartment or home. How many unused phone jacks are there in the walls? Once essential, today you’d be hard-pressed to find someone using all those phone jacks—thanks to the invention and advancement of cell phones! Ready to modernize?

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Random Toilet in the Basement

Usually found in pre-World War II-era homes, this lone toilet looks entirely misplaced—not just because it’s in the basement, but because there is nothing around it to make it feel like a proper, private bathroom! And while many don’t even have a sink nearby, others are paired with a crude basement shower apparatus and large sink.

It’s often referred to as the “Pittsburgh potty” for the abundance of them in that city. Legend has it that the historically industrial town’s steelworkers and miners used them after a long day of work. They’d enter their basements to clean up before entering the main part of the house, to avoid tracking in grime.

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Knob and Tube Wiring

This early standardized method of electrical wiring in buildings began around 1880 and lasted until the 1930s. The system consisted of single-insulated copper conductors run within wall or ceiling cavities. They passed through joist and stud drill-holes by way of protective porcelain insulating tubes. For support along their length, porcelain knob insulators were nailed down. Knob and tube wiring was displaced from interior wiring systems as a result of the high cost of installation in comparison to power cables.

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Why Do Old Homes Have a Bed in the Ceiling?

Unlike the famous Murphy bed, which folds into a closet or wall to save floor space when not in use, the Sorlien ceiling bed is stowed in the ceiling! The Sorlien, the Murphy bed’s forgotten competitor, was patented in 1913. The bed was lowered from the ceiling via a crank, with hidden weights in the wall working to counterbalance the bed. “Transmission drum is concealed in the wall by means of a hinged door 15 by 16-1/2 inches set flush with the wall,” according to an ad (from 1917) for the Sorlien bed. Folding legs on the bottom of the bed made sure sleepers enjoyed a properly grounded night’s rest.

The bed was marketed as taking up no closet or wall space, with floor space used only when in service. “When not in use, it may remain in the ceiling without collecting dust or getting the mattress and bed clothing disarranged,” the ad reads. Of course, the ceiling bed only worked for houses with an “attic above.”

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Push-Button Light Switch

Push-button light switches emerged in the mid-19th century, but eventually gave way to the toggle switch. Issues with push-button light switches are no secret, including the buttons easily getting stuck in one position. How inconvenient!

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Hoosier Cabinet

A Hoosier cabinet is a free-standing kitchen cabinet that doubles as a workstation. These cabinets were common in the first few decades of the 20th century. They declined in popularity with the advent of built-in kitchen cabinetry and countertops.

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Boot Scraper

If you’ve ever walked up to someone’s front door and seen a strange ground-level cast-iron contraption, it’s a boot scraper! Known as a “decrottoir” in French, which refers to the need to remove excrement (yuck), boot scrapers popped up in the 18th and 19th centuries alongside the invention of walking paths. With modernism came less mud in the streets (as well as less dog, human, horse and pig excrement), so the boot scraper declined in necessity and popularity.

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Root Cellar

Root cellars existed to store vegetables, fruits, nuts and more for long periods of time. Some were simply an unfinished room in the basement while others were built into the ground a short distance from the house. Present-day food distribution systems and refrigeration have rendered root cellars unnecessary for most people. But if you have one, you can certainly still put it to good use!

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Razor Slit in Medicine Cabinet

Decades ago, medicine cabinets had a tiny slit to dispose of old razor blades. Where might those dirty razors go? Nowhere, really. They merely went into the wall. Out of sight, out of mind!

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Dumbwaiters were most often used to move dishes and food when the kitchen and dining room were on different levels of the house. If you have one in your old house, you could use it as a clothes chute.

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Servant Staircase

Does your old home have a strange staircase? In old mansions, household servants—and pre-Civil War, possibly slaves—were often directed to stay out of sight. The solution was a separate staircase in the back just for the servants to use. This is why your kitchen or pantry might be accessible by two staircases.

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Servant Floor Button

Also known as a butler’s call or ring, a servant floor button was situated in the middle of the floor of the formal dining room. It was used to summon the butler by stepping on it. Today, if an old house has one, it’s likely hidden beneath a rug under the table.

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Milk Door

You probably haven’t had milk delivered to your door in a long time. It used to be common, with a milk door standard in many homes. The small door was situated on the outside of the house and was used by the milkman, to pick up empty bottles and leave fresh ones.

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Old Homes Often Have Transom Windows

Those panels of glass you’ll still find on old homes are called transom doors. Their main purpose was to let in natural light in the front hallways and interior rooms—like keeping rooms—before electricity became the norm. Today, they still allow in natural light, but they’re more aesthetic than functional. Who doesn’t love natural light?

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Picture Hanging Molding

Picture rails or picture hanging molding became common in the 1840s as a way to hang from a movable hook while not damaging the wall surface. By the 1940s, the picture rail was outdated, and the invisible hook standard. You can still purchase molding and install a picture rail if you like the look.

Alexa Erickson
Alexa is an experienced lifestyle and news writer, currently working with Reader's Digest, Shape Magazine and various other publications. She loves writing about her travels, health, wellness, home decor, food and drink, fashion, beauty and scientific news. Follow her traveling adventures on Instagram: @living_by_lex, send her a message: [email protected] and check out her website: livingbylex.com