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A vintage bathroom “ice water” tap — a chilling mystery!

ice water faucet in bathroom ice-water-tapIn the early days of the blog, the woddities — “wonderful oddities” — came fast and furious — so many inventive, undiscovered home features, patiently waiting to be rediscovered. But nowadays… golly… no woddity action in four months: Have we seen it all? Fear not, last hot time Saturday night on our Facebook page, (1) Nicole tipped us to this klassic Kzoo time capsule house… in which (2) Suzanne spotted a seemingly extraneous faucet above the bathroom sink… and then sure enough (3) Diane piped in — she has one (shown above) in her 1936 house… and howdy, hudee, here we have a very wodd woddity, indeed. So… what the heck is it for? Can we solve the mystery? 

ice-water-bathroom
The ice water faucet / tap in Diane’s 1936 bathroom

There were many comments guessing at the tap’s purpose, and once we had a good closeup photo, leading contenders included:

#1 — Diane speculated:

I’ve discussed this with several plumbers over the years, and the consensus is that there was an ice water tank in the basement, similar to a hot water tank. There’s no evidence of a tank, so it’s just speculation. Fortunately, whoever disconnected the ice water source re-connected the tap to the regular water source, so the tap still works!

# 2 — Another reader said her plumber had another theory — that this extra faucet on the wall adjusted the water pressure.

#3 — But best yet, Clive speculated:

Maybe when you turn it, the whole wall, basin and floor swivel around, spinning you into a secret Dr. Evil-style midcentury modern lair. Well we can always hope!

Yes, Clive, we can always hope!

Hmmm… either of those first two ideas sounded plausible to me. But hey, I know an expert — John of deabath.com — they specialize in vintage plumbing fixtures. Longtime advertiser-friends of the blog, they always are quick to help us solve plumbing mysteries. Perhaps they could solve this one, too?

Quick as a flash — yes, in minutes — John responded to my email. He said:

retro faucet
From deabath’s inventory: Ice water faucets from Crane (left) and American Standard (right).

retro faucetHi Pam:

That’s an easy one! Some high-end homes had a separate refrigeration unit strictly for ice cold drinking water, and the house was plumbed with a separate cold line just for this use.  The faucet spout will have a separate inlet just for the ice water, one turned the knob on the wall and ice water flowed from the spout.  We have in our parts bin two spouts that had a button on the spout marked “Ice water”.  You pressed the button, and you got cold water…  As with many things, this went out of fashion.

You can’t say we don’t know how to have fun here.

  1. Jacki says:

    This is so neat! Definitely a nice drink of water in the middle of the night. R and R is so helpful at figuring what these woddities are that I’m hoping you can help me figure out what the small special nozzle is in my MB shower. It is chrome and somewhat teardrop shaped; you can turn it on and off by a separate valve. We think it might either be a foot washing nozzle or a floor washing nozzle. The house was built in 1963. None of our plumbers ever have seen this before has anyone here?

  2. Kathy says:

    I was working on the history of our local post office built in 1920, and the employee’s bathroom had its own water tank and water purifier, a luxury that merited special notice in the local newspaper when it opened. I actually live in the house occupied by the first supervisor of the municipal waterworks, remodeled circa the same time. Good plumbing and water is something we take for granted, but was a huge benefit to homeowners and to public sanitation in those days.

  3. Ann-Marie Meyers says:

    I used to live in this neighborhood. My husband and I looked at several homes in the area but ended up purchasing a couple of miles away. The house we bought did not have an ice water tap, and it only had one bathroom, black and gray tiles, not pink or blue. Kalamazoo was where we first fell in love with mid century homes. It wasn’t hip then, and you could get real bargains for well cared for, lovely houses.

  4. SebastianFLL says:

    Yes! This would be great in any modern home. I loathe bathroom tap water, but cool, chilled, filtered water would be a welcome addition…

  5. Jacqueline Rudig says:

    I have such a faucet in my 1936 bathroom When I turn it on now, I am greeted with ugly brown rusty water. The original owner of my house said this faucet was originally connected to the well on the property. When the well went dry (or perhaps eas “outlawed”) the line was connected to the regular cold water line.
    The brown water I get now is probably because I rarely (never) actually use this faucet.

  6. Ed Hubbard says:

    We had the EXACT same configuration in our 1950 MCM home. Our home had a commercial walk-in cooler in the basement that contained an approximately 25-gallon water tank that was kept cold at all times in the cooler.

  7. Jacqueline Rudig says:

    I have evidence that my “ice water” faucet was originally (1936) connected to well water. When the well was no longer useable, this faucet was connected to the city water supply.

    1. Mary Elizabeth says:

      Jacqueline, that is interesting that you know that part of the history of your house.

      My DH and I have two cool drinking water taps that we installed ourselves–one in the kitchen and one in the pink bath. They go to a tank in the basement that double filters the water through a reverse osmosis system. (We have naturally occurring lead in our groundwater.) Because the tank and filter are in the basement, the water stays pretty cool. We also have another line going to our icemaker.

  8. la573 says:

    A few things:

    = Chilled water taps are still very much available. The most common type is made by the likes of Insinkerator and are often paired with a steaming hot water dispenser, but instead of a single tab there will be two tabs, one for chilled water and one for near-boiling water. Be careful and press the right one!

    – The decline in popularity in ice-water faucetry has alot to do with the popularity in recent decades of chilled water dispensers in refrigerators. It’s become difficult to find larger refrigerators without this feature (or an icemaker).

    – In a related woddity, I remember when I was a teenager I stayed in an old hotel in Atlantic City that had four water knobs serving the bathtub – the usual cold and hot, and a second pair that pulled in salt water from the nearby ocean, hot or cold. I’ve never seen a similar setup since.

    1. Dan says:

      Separate salt or sea water taps were fairly standard on ocean liners through the 30’s – I believe the original Queen Mary has them. The salt was thought to have therapeutic qualities. Must have played havoc with the plumbing, though.

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