So THAT’S What That Little Door is For…

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.  🙂


"Keep out the iceman" read this ad from a 1915 "Ladies' Home Journal." It would seem the dapper gent with the straw hat and fine shirt is "icing" the box from the outside. While he may not need to enter the house, it's interesting that he's still managing to sneak a peek at the lady of the house.

Ice box

"Hey Baby, It's me, Mr. Kool. What's up? Is the old man around"


What this graphic does NOT show is the iceman's panic-stricken face, when he realizes that "the lady of the house" is a zombie who apparently passed on some time ago. Instead of eyes, she has those ominous x's, which can mean only one thing: She's become one of the walking dead and that platter in her dainty hands will soon contain a zombie's favorite meal - Iceman Brains. Scary stuff.

This vintage photo of Gosnold Avenue (from the late 1950s) shows the open back porch and the ice box door.

This vintage photo of Gosnold Avenue (from the late 1950s) shows the open back porch and the ice box door (under the pantry window).

Close-up of door.

Close-up of door.


Years ago, our back porch was enclosed and today it's a handy-dandy pantry. Incredibly, the original ice box door remains, just as it was when the house was built in 1925. The room on the other side of this door is the original pantry, which was converted into a half bath about 30 years ago. The corresponding opening on the bathroom side is gone.


When you open this door, there's nothing but a piece of plywood on the other side. It creates an interesting (albeit very shallow) cabinet space.


Close-up of snazzy (and original) hinges.

To buy Rose’s icebox door, click here.

To read another article about awesome old houses, click here.

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  1. Redcurls

    Rosemary….have you ever heard of or seen a “window box” which is somehwat similar? There is no access from the outside, but there is like a two foot span (under the kitchen window) that is about a foot high and has two sliding doors…in cold weather, you could keep foods cold in there. During warmer weather, we just stored shelf-stable items.

  2. tim

    I’ve been wondering about the purpose of a little door in our old house. It was in the kitchen, on floor level, about six-inches square.

    Any ideas?

  3. Rhonda Frazier

    My 1926 house in Northern CA has screened circle open to the outside in one of the upper cabinets. I thinks it’s supposed to be to keep food fresh because the air circulates.

    None of it makes sense to me. Doesn’t it just mean cold air comes in in the winter and warm air…oh, never mind the warm air. It’s way up in Northern California and coastal. It’s perfect most of the year! But I wonder if it’s similar to what Redcurls is questioning in her house.

  4. Michael

    Tim: Your small door was for Milk.

    -Michael McBrien

  5. Pence

    My granny had a small door in the 2nd floor bathroom of her house. I looked in it once and i saw a spiral type of staircase but it was way too small for a human. Any ideas what it’s for?

  6. Tim Smellie

    I have a coat closet in my Foyer and found a box built into the wall on the front of my house it’s about 18”x8”. Any idea what it’s for.