Basement cisterns were common in homes throughout the 19th century. Rainwater delivered water to the cistern through gutters and downspouts. Cisterns were designed to store water, usually for washing and laundry. Most basement cisterns are large rectangular boxes, in my experience. An active basement cistern can contribute significantly to interior moisture.
If your home has an inactive basement cistern and you would like to use that space. Waters Basement Services, Inc. can open it up to a doorway or remove a wall to open that space up for use.