I grew up in a densely-populated city in the Northeast, about as far from rural life as you can get. Running around as a kid, I remember seeing some older homes having these weird little posts out in front on the footpath, usually with a tiny horse head on top. For a long time I was mystified, until someone finally explained that these were old horse hitching posts dating back to the days before cars, when people would ride up to your house and tie off their horse before going inside. Now they were purely decorative.
Old homes are filled with features that were once necessary and useful but have been left behind by the march of progress. Ice doors, coal chutes, razor slits in the walls — most of these old-school features aren’t very useful, and preserving them in an old home is more of an aesthetic choice, or an effort to preserve some tiny slice of history. But some of these old features are still useful today, either for their original purpose or in new, creative ways. You might not know what to do with a horse hitching post in front of your house, but you can definitely put some of these old-fashioned architectural and design choices to good use.
If you have a small room just off the kitchen or dining room (often located between those two rooms), you have yourself a butler’s pantry. There are likely kitchen-style cabinets in there, as well as some counter space. In the modern era, a butler’s pantry might even be sort of a small kitchen, with appliances and plumbing. Back in the day, butler’s pantries were actually a place where the valuable silverware and china would be stored, sometimes behind a locked door. Over time, it evolved into a staging area for dinner parties and other events; dishes could be brought into the butler’s pantry and then transferred to the dining room as needed or desired.
Today, butler’s pantries can be used for just about anything, including their original purpose if you imagine thieves casing your house for your valuable collection of decorative spoons. People use them to organise their entertaining, as extra kitchen storage, or as dedicated coffee stations, wet bars, or wine racks.
Dutch-style doors are those doors that are split in two so you can open the top half and bottom half independently (often the two halves can be bolted together to transform them into a normal door). These doors were originally designed so you could open the top half to let in fresh air and sunlight while keeping the bottom half closed to stop animals from wandering into your house. While this isn’t as crucial a consideration in modern urban areas, these sorts of doors can still be useful to anyone with small children or excitable pets who might escape the house, seeking adventure. These sorts of doors can also keep debris and dirt from blowing into your house when you want to air the place out a bit.
This one is one of the more obvious old-school features you can still use. The history of the laundry chute goes back to the 1800s, long before washing machines were invented. But even after the introduction of washing machines and dryers, older homes often had the laundry facilities installed in the basement because they’d been originally built in a time before washing machines, and the basement was the only spot they could be installed without a major renovation. The laundry chute was an ingenious way to leverage gravity and make your life slightly easier by letting you feed your dirty knickers into a slot in the wall and forget about them until you remembered to do some laundry.
If your washing machine is still down in the basement, you’re probably still using your laundry chute if you have one. But even if your laundry has been moved to a sunny room on the main floor, your laundry chute could still be useful for transferring stuff to the basement without having to lug it down those steep stairs. Some folks even install new laundry chutes in their homes in order to enjoy the convenience.
Back in the days before modern sewer systems and pavement, walking around any town or city was a messy affair. Arriving at a nice, clean house or business with boots caked in mud (and other stuff) was a common issue, so cast-iron boot scrapers were often installed outside front doors. These are used exactly as you might imagine: You scrape the soles and sides of your boots on them to remove all that dirt.
While the world around us might be (marginally) cleaner today, tracking dirt and mud into the house is still kind of gross, so the boot scraper lives on (it’s especially beloved by gardeners, who are forever dragging their gardens into the house with them). While modern boot scrapers often have brushes to make them more effective or storage rods for wet boots to be left outside entirely, the old-school boot scraper that was there when you bought the house is still perfectly usable for its intended purpose.
Does your charming old house have what looks like thin crown moulding positioned about a foot or so down from the ceiling? What looks like a bizarre design choice is actually a picture rail. Back in the days before drywall, most homes had walls made of plaster sitting on wooden lathe. Plaster is brittle and poking holes in it to hang pictures would almost guarantee huge cracks and eventual failure of sections of the wall, so picture rails were often installed so you could hang art on the walls without damaging them.
And they still perform that task. While modern drywall is a little easier to drill into and repair than plaster, it’s still a pain in the butt to do it. A picture rail allows you to hang art without bothering with any of that tedious work. People are still installing it today, in fact.
There was a time when the old-fashioned landline telephone was a cutting-edge piece of technology. When telephones became popular, homes weren’t wired up for them (obviously) and people weren’t sure what to do with them, so they were often placed in special rooms — or in little niches in hallways or out-of-the-way spots. They usually included a small shelf to accommodate taking notes and messages, and often had a second shelf where the old-school phone book would be kept.
These can still be quite useful. Some folks decorate them with potted plants or sculpture, adding a dash of colour and whimsy to an entryway or hallway. But if you have a power outlet installed nearby (or, ideally, in the niche itself) they make for absolutely ideal charging stations for your smart phones and tablets. If the telephone nook is located near the front door, they can be perfect places to drop your keys, wallet, and phone when you walk in.
Finally, the venerable dumbwaiter is the legacy of the old days when kitchens were separated from the living areas of a home. Meals would be prepared down in the kitchen and sent up via a tiny freight elevator, and dirty dishes would be sent back down the same way.
If you have a dumbwaiter in your house, it might not lead to a kitchen any more, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still useful. Anything that allows you to transfer heavy or awkward objects from one floor to another without having to use the stairs is still a pretty amazing device.
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