No One Knows What This Mystery Bathroom Fixture Is, so We Asked Experts

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As we were scrolling Instagram last month, we came across a perplexing post by Scott Sidler of The Craftsman Blog (@thecraftsmanblog). A follower had submitted a video with a simple question — what is this thing?

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As you can see in the video, the contraption is a hinged wooden panel attached to a bathroom wall, quite low to the ground. According to the owner of the house, Rick Barzell (@rbarzell66), who commented on Sidler's post, it's located in California in a single-story home without a basement that was built in 1922.

Neither we at Hunker nor any of the dozens of commenters have a definitive answer as to what this object is — although one commenter (@sara_marinara) said she had a similar device in her own home, which dates back to 1927. So we've turned to all sorts of architectural experts to find out what the hinged panel might be. And, very interestingly, we've struck out on all counts.

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"I have seen a lot of bathrooms in my 25-plus-year historic preservation career — and a lot of historic images of bathrooms, including period catalogs and advertisements, and, of course, the wonderful book by Jane Powell, ​Bungalow Bathrooms​ — but I have never seen a fold-down seat, or whatever it is, like that," Jennifer Trotoux, director of collections and interpretation at The Gamble House Conservancy in Pasadena, California, tells Hunker.

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Our experts have weighed in with their best guesses, as have commenters on the original Instagram post, and we've shared their theories below.

Theory: A Laundry Chute

Quite a few commenters suggested the device might be a laundry chute, but there are two issues with that theory. The first is that the back panel of the device would prevent clothes from falling down the chute, rendering it completely ineffective. The second is that there's no basement in this house, which means a chute would be entirely unnecessary.

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Still, there's something odd going on behind the panel. "It does seem to reveal a second back (and perhaps chute?), which appears to have a painted beadboard finish," notes one expert, who preferred not to provide their name, from the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), an architectural preservation non-profit in San Diego. "But it looked rather like the two front sections folded tight together, and there was little room behind, so it should not be easy to either store things or pass them through."

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Theory: A Seat

Instagram user @sara_marinara (whose full name is not listed on her profile) uses the device as a seat while bathing her baby in the tub, according to her comment on the Instagram post. Many other Instagram users jumped on board this train of thought, as did John Berley, treasurer of the Southern California Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

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"I think that it's actually a low seat, as it appears to be closer to 12 to 15 inches above the floor, not four inches as is suggested on the Instagram post. The image is deceiving, especially if we're looking at a six-inch tile base," he tells Hunker.

Or, suggests Trotoux, "I suppose it's possible that this was not installed at the height intended by the manufacturer, which would explain why it appears to be a seat but is too low to sit on."

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Theory: A Foot Stool

"My thoughts are that it was a foot stool of some sort. Perhaps to help when getting dressed and putting on socks and shoes?" Barzell wrote in a comment on the Instagram post. "Either that, or maybe to assist when dressing a child? Doesn't seem like something that was made to withstand much weight to tell you the truth."

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This theory has legs — or feet, if you will.

"I would agree with the owner of the house that the device appears to facilitate getting dressed. One imagines someone fixing garter belts on socks in the mornings or something like that, " Dr. Volker M. Welter, a professor in the department of history of art and architecture at the University of California at Santa Barbara, tells Hunker. Dr. Welter specializes in residential Californian architecture of the 20th century, among other topics.

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"Unfortunately, I do not know what the device was for, although the idea of having it for shining or putting on shoes seems plausible," Paul Spitzzeri, museum director of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, tells Hunker.

Trotoux agrees, but has her misgivings, too. "The comment about it being for shoes makes sense due to the low height, but I doubt that shoe maintenance would have taken place in the bathroom during this — or any — period. It seems like an activity for the service porch, and nearly every bungalow had one of those," says Trotoux.

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Theory: A Low Shelf

Many Instagram commenters were thrilled with the idea that the panel could be a low shelf to keep your clothes off the ground.

"My guess would be that it was used for keeping things off the floor, like books or a purse," another SOHO employee suggests to Hunker.

And while Dr. Welter stands by his initial assessment that the device is a foot stool of some kind, he also finds this shelf theory reasonable. "Or the device is like an inbuilt, pull-out shelf to rest something on it," he says. "Yet the low height once pulled out makes it more likely that the device helped to raise something up/off the ground."

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