Phone Booths

Working phone booth

Ah, the services that we grew up with we took for granted would always exist. The guy at the gas station would always be willing to throw in some nice freebie just so we would continue to buy his fuel. Your favorite AM station would continue to blast great rock and roll music across the country after dark. And you could always duck into a phone booth to make a call insulated from the elements and noise of the street.

Individual telephone booths still exist, but the ones that do have been in place for many years. As they decay, they are being removed, to be replaced by small standalone kiosk phones, or perhaps not being replaced at all.

After all, we all carry cell phones nowadays, don’t we?

Telephone booths first began showing up in American city street corners late in the 19th century. Besides providing a nice shelter for making a call, they also isolated the user and the outside world from each other, necessary for the welfare of both. The noise outside was a distraction for the caller, but he/she also had to practically shout into the phone to get their lossy signal to the other end at a volume discernible to the callee.

Phone companies were making good money from phone booth customers, so they began proliferating all over the country. By the 60’s, a phone booth could be seen at practically any corner grocery, gas station, or supermarket, as well as many busy street intersections. It seemed that you were never more than a few hundred feet away from a phone booth.

Italian phone booth in the 60’s

It became a part of American culture. We all know where Superman preferred to change his wardrobe. Phone booths became familiar places for plot twists and high drama in movies and television shows. And of course, the opening scene of Get Smart would feature Don Adams disappearing in a phone booth in order to get into CONTROL headquarters. Plus, college students of the 50’s delighted in seeing just how many individuals that could be stuffed into them at one time.

But we Boomers used them for their actual purpose, as well. I made hundreds of phone calls from booths. Many times, it was for the purpose of getting a little privacy (as in a homebound teenager calling a young lady ;-). But when you were away from home in the 60’s and 70’s, making a phone call meant finding a phone booth. You simply didn’t have any other options.

The numbers of phone booths in the US peaked in the late 60’s. They were expensive, and also not very accessible to the handicapped. Their days were clearly numbered. Free-standing telephone pedestals would usually replace phone booths that had become decrepit, as they were wont to do. Indeed, phone booths were often pretty disgusting places to be. Grime and trash would build up in their confines, and who had the job of keeping them clean? Nobody, that I can recall, except perhaps nearby business owners.

A few phone booths persist. Perhaps you have one somewhere close to where you live.

If so, slip inside, drop a quarter into the slot, and make a call for old time’s sake. Who knows, for just a moment, you might be able to take a little trip in time back to when gas was cheap, Sullivan was on Sunday nights, and JFK’s death was still recent enough to hurt. Pretty good investment of 25 cents, wouldn’t you say?

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