10 Charming Quirks of Old Houses

iStock
iStock

From the totally charming to the truly bizarre, older houses feature tons of tiny details that you'd never find in a brand-new construction. If you're house hunting for an oldie-but-goodie, here are 10 quirky things you might find.

1. MOTHER-IN-LAW BED

Unlike a Murphy bed, which cranks out of the wall, a mother-in-law bed cranks out of the ceiling.

2. DUMBWAITERS


iStock

Any little kid who read Harriet the Spy when they were young wanted a dumbwaiter in their house. Despite what Harriet used it for (spying, of course), dumbwaiters were not meant to carry people; they were most often used as kitchen help, to carry dishes and things when the kitchen and dining room were on different levels of the house. They're still utilized in some restaurants today, and a more modern version can be found in libraries and large office buildings to ferry large amounts of books and files from floor to floor.

3. BUILT-IN BEEHIVES

Don't call an exterminator: built-in beehives are supposed to be there. These were actually installed on purpose for the convenience of the beekeeping homeowner. Pipes go through the walls and behind the walls were beehives. The bees could move about freely through the pipes and make honey. When someone in the kitchen downstairs wanted honey, they simply trekked up the stairs, removed the back of the hive, and grabbed what they needed.

4. COAL CHUTES


Though few people use coal as a heating source these days, many older homes still feature coal chutes: typically, there's a big iron door visible on the outside of the house where shipments of coal would be shoveled in.

5. PHONE NICHE

Not so long ago, landlines were essential to communication—and they weren't the tiny, non-intrusive devices we know today. They were big, heavy, cumbersome things that took up a fair amount of space. To try to keep phones off of countertops and out of the way, home builders started making niches in walls. It seems as though a lot of people are repurposing the niches these days as a place to store mail or perch a plant or two. Boing Boing found one (it was built for Jean Harlow) and thought perhaps it was a place to store champagne or milk bottles; it was later concluded that the spot used to be a phone niche and was divided into a place to vertically store mail once the phone was no longer needed there.

6. SERVANT STAIRCASES


By Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In old mansions that required a large household staff to keep them running, servants were expected to stay out of sight. After all, you wouldn't want your well-heeled guests running into the maid on the staircase, would you? How gauche. The solution was a separate staircase in the back just for servant use. If you've ever run across a kitchen or pantry that could be accessed by two staircases and wondered what on earth the purpose was, now you know.

7. BUTLER'S PANTRY


By Hubbard, Cortlandt V. - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

How nice would it be to have a giant pantry separate from your kitchen? Old houses often have these tiny kitchens, which make a great place for storing your food. But that wasn't always their purpose; some just contained extra counter space and sinks so that servants could do their thing out of sight. In Europe, the silver was often kept in the butler's pantry and the butler would actually sleep in there to guard the silver.

8. COLD CLOSETS

Don't let the name mislead you: a cold closet is not the same thing as an icebox. An icebox was a free-standing piece of furniture that held a big block of ice near the top to keep the contents frozen. (Icemen delivered new blocks of ice every day, just like the milkman.) A cold closet, on the other hand, was built into the house and couldn't actually keep things frozen, just cool. So while you could keep your veggies and cheese and meats cool, stocking ice cream in the cold closet would be a bad idea.

9. MILK DOORS


By Downtowngal - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

It's been a while since any of us had milk delivered to our back doors, but back when that was the norm, a milk door was standard with a lot of houses. The milkman would open a tiny door on the side of the house, usually right next to the main door, and basically leave the milk in between the walls. Then the homeowners could open the door on their side and remove the bottles. Voila! Fresh milk to go with your breakfast.

10. ROOT CELLARS

Just like in The Wizard of Oz, you have to go outside to access a root cellar—and it was the first place you'd go if you saw a twister off in the distance. As the name suggests, it was used to store veggies for long periods of time, particularly over the winter.

18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer

iStock/MCCAIG
iStock/MCCAIG

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. Rosé Wine Glasses; $60 for Two

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. Nerf N-Strike Elite Surgefire; $19

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Walmart

3. Bushel & Berry Plants; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. Inflatable Donut; $11

An inflatable pool toy shaped like a pink donut with sprinkles
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. Star Spangled Spatula; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked … with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. Mlb Hot Dog Branders; $6 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders (which come in a variety of different designs repping teams across the country) from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. Una Grill; $145

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, on your deck, or anywhere in between.

Find It: Una

8. Hamburger Grilling Basket; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon or Walmart

9. Copper Fire Pit; $120

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. Bendy Straw Pool Noodle Float; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. Griddler Deluxe; $115

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. Vintage Snow Cone Maker; $32

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. Dachshund Corn On The Cob Holders; $6

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. Ice Cream Sandwich Maker; $20

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. Ue Wonderboom; $62

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable Bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. Rollors Game; $50

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. Hammock; $177

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL Survival Essentials; $45

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Moosejaw

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this story first ran in 2018. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

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