What is this mystery button?
August 2, 2008 1:43 PM   Subscribe

What is this button in my friend's house?

My friend owns a top floor condo unit in what used to be a house in Somerville, MA. They were converted to condos in 2002 and the house was originally built in 1906; he thinks it may have originally been a two family house. Anyway, so there's this button, and for the life of him, he can't figure out what it does. The previous owners didn't know either, and they bought directly from the condo converter (didn't ask the converter). He has asked the other condo owners in the building, they don't know either, nor do they have one. This makes us think it must be a remnant of the original house (only one in the house) even though it looks pretty new.

It's odd, because it looks like a doorbell, but it's inside the house, right outside the bathroom (we considered that it could have been some sort of bathroom warning system, but, well, it doesn't do anything). There's no intercom system built into the house, so it's not to buzz people in from outside, nor does there seem to be remnants of such a system. Doesn't control lights or electrical outlets or anything, really. That's all we could think to test.

Photos here: one and two

Alternatively, if it's not the kind of thing that can be figured out via this sort of forum (likely, I'm aware) does anyone know where to start looking for blueprints of the original home? Are they saved as a matter of public record somewhere? Obviously, they don't necessarily have to be online, but can one just stroll up to City Hall to get this sort of information? Do libraries store this information? Where do you even start?
posted by sa3z to Home & Garden (16 answers total)
Here's a theory, and it's just a theory. Could it have something to do with shared phone lines? Perhaps it buzzed one of the other apartments, letting them know that an incoming call was for them? I thought of this because I lived in an older building once where a single phone line went to both apartments, and we had to have the company come out and bring things up-to-date.

I also have lived in a newly build house with a button like that that just rang the doorbell, so I could be upstairs or downstairs and DONG DONG DONG the people on the other floor to tell them to pick up the phone.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:55 PM on August 2, 2008

Well, I'm pretty sure that button doesn't date to 1906, so the original blueprints might not be very helpful (and do blueprints even include things like wall switches?).

Are there wires attached to it? If so, where do they lead?
posted by box at 1:57 PM on August 2, 2008

In my 1910 house, the button unlocked the front door. There's a speaking tube so you can ask who's there, then buzz them in. Hasn't worked n the 20 years I've lived there. The button is in the center hallway, near the doorbell.
posted by theora55 at 2:00 PM on August 2, 2008

Button for a dumbwaiter?
posted by 6:1 at 2:04 PM on August 2, 2008

I have one that looks like that in my house too! Its a pushlock socket for a safety eyebolt. No idea why it was installed, though.

Does the button "push" in very far? If so, thats what it is. If not, I have no idea....
posted by vacapinta at 2:16 PM on August 2, 2008

I can't say for certain, but since around 2002 I've been receiving these sharp electric jolts at irregular intervals.

In my experience with similar buttons, this is a signal to the servant's quarters or to the kitchen. The original switchbox there will probably have been removed during renovations, and would probably have been located in what became the lower unit.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:55 PM on August 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

The house I grew up in was built around 1900 in St. Louis, Missouri, and it has a button like this outside the bathroom on the second floor of the house. The wiring ran to a room in the basement, where some sort of maid or help lived(?) There was also a similar button set into the floor of the dining room.
posted by bitshift at 3:14 PM on August 2, 2008

Another vote for it being to communicate with servants in a different part of the house. People living in Massachusetts in 1906 could quite conceivably have had valets or maids and used that button when their services were required.
posted by peacheater at 3:16 PM on August 2, 2008

No question it's a call button; they were very common in large houses of that era.

You won't find plans for the house in any public place; building permits were probably not needed at the time it was constructed. And, I've seen plans of houses built around that time that had servant call buttons, but they didn't do wiring blueprints the way we do today.

Conceivably, somewhere in the house is the other end of the wire, which would have been a bell in the kitchen or other quarters from whence a servant would be summoned. In the very large Newport, Rhode Island "cottages" and other major mansions, the termination point would be an annunciator board which told the butler (effectively the household staff manager) where in the place the call was coming from, and he would dispatch staff appropriately.

One wonders how Donald Trump and others who occupy vast residences today call staff. Are there still little buttons? Or does he call the butler on his cell phone?
posted by beagle at 3:43 PM on August 2, 2008

Many older houses in the Boston area have bath lightswitches outside the bathroom rather than inside - my electrician said it was an old code requirement (but wow, what a surprise when you're new to Boston and stumble to the loo in the dark and...stay in the dark). Anyway, as hal_c_on says, it could also have been a controller for a light of some sort, but disconnected during a later remodel if the light switch was moved inside the bathroom.

I did grow up in a Pacific Northwest house with working call buttons, though, which I thought was wicked cool until my mother got annoyed with me and disconnected all of them except the one in the dining room table under the rug, which was actually used sometimes.
posted by catlet at 3:56 PM on August 2, 2008

I think beagle has it.

People living in Massachusetts in 1906 could quite conceivably have had valets or maids and used that button when their services were required.

Oh, Lord yes.

Outside the bathroom is a good place for this button. Head in to shave, buzz for breakfast.
posted by Miko at 5:19 PM on August 2, 2008

Following vacapinta, here's a movie clip that shows a pushlock being used. Does it push in that far?
posted by Houstonian at 5:20 PM on August 2, 2008

Here's an old-house blog showing some similar versions of servant call buttons. If that is what it is, somewhere in the building would have been a nunciator/annunciator panel showing which apartment was calling. Here's another example. Here is a complete call system being restored in a historic house. I've seen vestigial versions in a couple of historic hotels, too.
posted by Miko at 5:30 PM on August 2, 2008

STOP PUSHING THAT BUTTON. I haven't slept in a week.

If it has an up/down state, it's a light switch that's no longer connected to anything: I have a couple of those, which every visitor plays with compulsively. If it's a push-release, it's a call button for your bathroom attendant and/or maid.
posted by rokusan at 5:35 PM on August 2, 2008

I also think it's a call button for the butler or maid, it would make the most sense, and I have seen many similar things in old houses here in Montreal.
posted by Vindaloo at 5:55 PM on August 2, 2008

Steven Wright has your answer: See #60.
posted by dinger at 10:11 AM on August 3, 2008

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