10 Charming Quirks of Old Houses

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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


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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.

9 Royally Interesting Facts About King Cake

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It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. The King Cake is believed to have Pagan origins.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. The King Cake stirred up controversy during the French Revolution.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. The King Cake determined the early kings and queens of Mardi Gras.


A Mardi Gras King in 1952.

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. The King Cake's baby trinkets weren't originally intended to have religious significance.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. Bakeries are afraid of getting sued.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. The French version of the King Cake comes with a paper crown.


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In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. There's also the Rosca de Reyes, the Bolo Rei, and the Dreikönigskuchen.


"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia).

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. The King Cake is no longer just a New Orleans tradition.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. The New Orleans Pelicans have a King Cake baby mascot—and it is terrifying.

Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

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