Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
March 10, 2024 ·  5 min read

The Reason Some Houses Have Small Shelves Built Into Hallways

Old homes can be beautiful, charming, whimsical, and in some cases, kind of spooky. In short, they have a lot of character. If you’ve ever been inside an old home, maybe your grandparents’ house, you may have noticed some things inside them that are confusing. There are some old home features that many of us just have no idea what they are (or rather, were) for. Here are 12 old home features and what purpose they used to serve.

12 Old Home Features That Baffle People Today

What’s with that random, small nook in the wall at your grandparents’ home? Or that tiny iron door that led down to their basement? For many of us, our grandparents’ houses were full of little quirks you won’t find in more modern homes. These old home features, however, are there for a reason. At one point in time, they had a purpose – only their purpose is unnecessary and non-existent in today’s world. How many of these old home features have you seen before?

1. Phone Niche

That little niche, nook, or box mid-way up the wall in many old homes today doesn’t seem to serve much purpose. In houses that still have them, you’ll likely find family photos or other decorations.  This small space was known as the phone niche. It was from back when people had just one landline in their homes. The phone niche is where that phone sits attached to the wall. Often these niches had a space or shelf included where the telephone and address books sat. After all, how else would you know the number of the person you were calling? (1)

2. Tiny Iron Door To The Basement

Up until the 1940s, most homes were heated by burning coal. This little door was for the coal delivery man. He would go door-to-door dropping the coal through the door and down a little shoot. From there, families could shovel the coal directly into their furnaces. Today most homes are heated via natural gas and/electricity. (2)

3. Ice Door

Many old homes have pantries, and in those pantries, there is a small door to the outside. Similar to the coal door, this is the ice door. Again, someone would come door-to-door delivering ice. They dropped the ice through this little door which went straight into the icebox. Modern-day freezers run on electricity, but this wasn’t always the case.

4. Metal Plates On Outside Walls

Have you noticed metal plates in the shape of an “S”, “x”, or a star on the outside walls of old homes? These are anchor plates, or wall anchors. They are on the outside walls of old brick homes to prevent the walls from bowing outwards and eventually collapsing.

5. A Lone Toilet In A Basement

Some old homes have a random toilet just sitting in a basement with no walls for privacy around them. These are from the pre-World War II era for steelworkers and miners. They came home from work each day filthy, so they would wash up in the basement before coming upstairs. While now many of these toilets stand alone, there are some that have a crude shower and sink as well.

6. Knob and Tube Wiring

Nowadays if you still have this kind of wiring in your home, you’ll probably have to fight pretty hard with your insurance company to get home coverage. From 1880 until about 1930, this kind of wiring was standard. These systems consisted of insulated copper conductors that ran through wall or ceiling cavities. Safely inside protective porcelain insulating tubes, they passed through joist-and-stud drill holes in the walls. The porcelain knob insulators were nailed down for extra support. They eventually got replaced for safer and less costly alternatives.

7. Landline Phone Jacks


Many homes and older apartments still have funny-looking “outlets” in the walls. These are not outlets, but rather old landline phone jacks. These predate cell phones and are from the era when everyone only had a home phone. Many homes still have these, but they are being used less and less. It probably won’t be long until they are a thing of the past.

8. Ceiling Bed

Some really old homes have something that was known as the Sorlien ceiling bed. Patented in 1913, you stored the bed up in the ceiling and then used a crank to lower the bed to the floor when you needed it. There were even legs folded neatly underneath. A way to make the most of a small space, these have since been replaced with more modern versions, such as the Murphy bed.

9. Boot Scraper


You may have noticed a funny little cast-iron thing sticking up from the ground outside the front door of an old home. This is a boot scraper or a decrottoir. These were used to scrape mud, dirt, and other of one’s shoes before entering a building or home. As the world modernized and became less dirty, these became less necessary.

10. Small Slit In A Medicine Cabinet

This slit in old medicine cabinets is known as the razor slit. This is because it is where people would dispose of used razors. Popular several decades ago, you won’t find them any longer. You might wonder where the razors went and how they were disposed of. They simply ended up in the wall and were never seen again. Imagine the walls that are still filled with used razors.

11. Milk Door


Many old homes have another small door on an outside wall, usually near the kitchen area. This is the milk door. The milkman used this door. He would come by and pick up the empty milk bottles the homeowner had used and replace them with fresh bottles full of milk.

12. Servant Floor Button

Many old homes have features that were once used by the family’s help. Dumbwaiters to easily transport dirty dishes from the dining room to the kitchen, hidden rooms and staircases that were once used only by the help, etc. One of these strange items is a floor button, usually found on the formal dining room floor. You could step on this button to call the butler to the room.

An Interesting Look Into History

While these features may not be helpful today, they give us a little peek into what life was like in the past. Whether it be just a decade or so ago to a hundred years or more, technology has certainly changed our daily lives quite a lot. It also helps us to understand and connect to our grandparents and our parents when we learn about these things that, for them, were once as common as our cell phones and other modern technologies.


  1. The Reason Some Houses Have Small Shelves Built Into Hallways.” Homemaking. Lauren Kochanowski. February 2, 2023.
  2. 20 Mysterious Old Home Features That Aren’t Useful Anymore.” Family Handy Man. Alexa Erickson. February 9, 2023.