Old houses often contain many mysteries. It’s our 21st Century paradigm (and ignorance of recent history) that makes our old homes seem “mysterious.”
Take ice boxes, for instance. We’re just one or two generations away from these once-modern marvels, and yet most of us baby boomers know little about them! If fact, most post-WW2 folks know very little about day-to-day life in the early 20th Century. Discovering the answers to those “old house mysteries” can be pretty darn fun (and satisfying, too).
During the open house here at Gosnold, someone was puzzled by the funny little door in my home’s pantry. When I explained the purpose of that door, the visitor exclaimed, “I’ve got one of those little doors in my old house, too. I always wondered what that was for!”
The “funny little door” was an access door for the ice man. Back in the day, my pantry was an open back porch. And back in the day, houses had an area in the pantry or kitchen dedicated to the ice box. An exterior access was created for the ice box, so the iceman could deliver fresh ice to the house without traipsing through the house (and ruining a freshly cleaned kitchen floor in the process).
Sawdust was typically used to insulate the ice, so when your 25 or 50-pound block of ice was delivered, it often came with a little mud, some spilled water and a light dusting of sawdust. It was a bit messy.
With a small service door on the rear of the house, the ice man could tromp up on the back porch, open the little service door, then reach in and open the corresponding smaller door on the rear of the ice box, insert the block of ice and be on his way. In some ice box promotional literature and catalogs, this service door was also known as “The Jealous Husband’s Door,” because it eliminated the opportunity for an iceman to socialize with the lady of the house.
As ice melted, the water could be collected in a pan or (in fancier homes), an ice box drain was provided to take the water away. In my house, the old 2″ ice box drain line is still in place. The line exits through the basement wall at about 12″ below grade. Ice box drains were not plumbed into the sewer line because oftimes there would not be enough water to keep the trap filled with water. If an ice box drain was plumbed into the sewer line and the water in the trap evaporated (or was not present for any reason), sewer gasses could end up in the house, and that’s a very bad thing.
I suspect there was a very small reservoir or tank or drain field of some kind to receive the water that drained from the ice box.
Now perhaps there’ll be one less mystery about your old house and that little door.
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