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15 Mysterious Old House Features That Just Aren’t Useful Anymore

Many old homes have perplexing features that baffle their modern-day owners. Here we've solved 15 of those mysteries!

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Door Sears Modern Homes

Ice door

Are you puzzled by that funny little door in your home’s pantry? That’s an access door that your friendly neighborhood “ice man” used to use. Homes of a certain era had an area in the pantry or kitchen dedicated to the ice box. Access was created for this door on the exterior of the home, allowing for easy delivery of fresh ice to the house without the delivery men having to enter the home. And if you think that’s quirky, here’s why old homes have a tiny iron door leading to the basement.

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traditional Phoenix Renovations

Phone niche

The landline used to be the essential means of communication for everyone in the household, and back in the day the devices weren’t so compact. Because of their hefty stature, telephones required quite a bit of space and as a luxury item in the home, their presence was often highlighted and the functionality provided for in the architecture—hence, the phone niche. Many homes today retain this architectural detail, however, the space is more often used as a place to store things like mail or to display a plant or decor item.

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Landline osonmez2/Shutterstock

Landline phone jacks

Take a look around your home or apartment. How many unused phone jacks do you see? Despite being at one time an essential, jacks aren’t needed anymore at all, thanks to the invention and advancement of cell phones. When you’re ready to upgrade, here are 10 gadgets that can help you make smart-home improvements to your old house with ease.

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tubeLaura Scudder

Knob and tube wiring

This early method of electrical wiring in buildings emerged around 1880 and was standard practice until the late 1940s. The single conductor, ungrounded system consisted of cloth- and rubber-insulated copper wires run within wall or ceiling cavities. Lines passed through joist and stud drill-holes by way of protective porcelain insulating tubes to keep the wires from contacting combustible surfaces. For support along their length, porcelain knob insulators were nailed down. Knob and tube wiring fell out of use with the advent of power cables, which could be installed at lower cost, and those eventually included grounding conductors as a safety feature. Knob and tube wiring is considered dangerous by most home insurers and is just one of the super scary things that could derail a home buy.

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Switch Tim Barber Ltd Architecture

Push-button light switch

Push-button light switches came to be sometime in the mid-19th century but eventually fell out of use in favor of the toggle switch. Issues with the push-button light switches were no secret, including the buttons easily getting stuck in one position. How inconvenient! Most home owners today, prefer dimmers over either of these, and it’s a fairly easy DIY upgrade. Here’s how to install a dimmer switch.

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Cabinet American Country Home Store

Hoosier cabinet

A Hoosier cabinet is a free-standing kitchen cabinet that doubles as a workstation. These cabinets were coveted by many a housewife in the first few decades of the 20th century. They’ve declined in popularity now that we have built-in kitchen cabinetry, but if you want to get a similar vintage look in your kitchen, here’s how to replace wood cabinet doors with glass.

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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 with the advent of walking paths. With modernism came less mud (as well as dog, human, horse, and pig excrement) on the streets, and so the boot scraper declined in necessity and popularity, but they’re still a nice-to-have on farms and in rural homes. If the idea appeals, you can make this handy boot scraper yourself in less than two hours.

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Root cellar

Root cellars existed to store vegetables, fruits, nuts, and more, and preserve the foods for long periods of time. Some root cellars were simply an unfinished, dirt-floor 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 those who have one say they can still put it to good use! Don’t miss these 13 hidden rooms you’ll wish you had in your house.

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razor Green Halo Systems

Razor slit in medicine cabinet

Decades ago, medicine cabinets had a tiny slit to dispose of old razor blades. Where might those dirty blades go? Nowhere, really. They slipped into the wall, never to be seen again. Out of sight, out of mind!

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dumbwaiterNoah Jeppson/via Flickr


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. Here’s how to install a laundry chute, even if you don’t have a dumb waiter to convert.

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StaircaseD Barton/Shutterstock

Servant staircase

Does your old home have a strange second staircase? Old mansions usually required a large household staff to take care of them, and the staff were generally required to stay out of sight. The solution was a separate staircase in the back for the servants to use. This explains why that kitchen or pantry in your old house might be accessible by two staircases.

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Servant floor button

Also known as a butler’s call or ring, a button situated in the middle of a formal dining-room floor was most likely used by a host or hostess, who could surreptitiously summon the butler by stepping on it. If your old house has one still, it’s likely hidden beneath a rug under the table.

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DoorWandering Introvert/Shutterstock

Milk door

You probably haven’t had milk delivered to your door in a very long time. However, it used to be a common occurrence, and a milk door was standard in many homes. The small door was usually situated on the side of the house, so the milkman could leave bottles of milk there for a housewife or house keeper to retrieve from an adjacent little door inside the house.

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Transom windows

Those panels of glass you still see above the doors on some old homes are called transom doors. Their main purpose was to let natural light into front hallways and interior rooms, before electricity came to be. They are still useful today to allow in natural light—and stained-glass transoms are just beautiful—but they’re far less vital to the home now that we have modern lighting.  Check out this collection of ways to create new spaces with windows and doors.

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Picture rails

Picture rails or picture hanging molding became common in the 1840s as a means for hanging pictures from a movable hook that could hold a substantial amount of weight while not harming the wall surface. By the 1940s, the picture rail was outdated, and the invisible hook had became standard. You can still purchase the molding and install a picture rail to restore instant original character to your old home. Many find it charming! Don’t miss these 50 abandoned homes that would look incredible if they were restored.

The Family Handyman
Originally Published on The Family Handyman

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 travel adventures on Instagram: @living_by_lex, send her a message: [email protected], and check out her website: