Do you remember the telephone booth?
In 1999 you could plunk a coin into one of 2 million phone booths in the United States. Only 5% of those are left today. About a fifth of America’s 100,000 remaining pay phones are in New York, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
The demise of pay phones is an unsurprising result of cell phones in 95 percent of American’s pockets, according to Pew Research. The country’s largest carriers have all sold the last of their phones to the independent providers. Sprint left in 2006. AT&T exited two years later. And Verizon got out in 2011.
When the telephone was invented in 1876, it was at first a service available only to the relatively wealthy, at least when it came to private use, according to Sheldon Hochheiser, corporate historian at AT&T. Phone service was sold to individuals in expensive packages. But as the telephone grew in the years after its invention, so too did the demand for a way to access the telephone exchanges— services that connected people via operators—even if one didn’t have a private telephone in one’s business or home.
One of the earliest commercial telephone exchanges was established between Bridgeport and Black Road, Conn., in 1878. That year, Thomas Doolittle had also reused a telegraph wire between the two towns and “put a telephone on each end and put them in wooden booths,” Hochheiser explains, “which people could pay a set rate of 15 cents to use, making that perhaps the first telephone connections that were in both a booth where people could pay to make an individual call.”
Phone booths—there were banks of them in Grand Central Station in New York City. Outdoor phone booths made their first entrance in the early 1900s and became commonplace in the 1950s when glass and aluminum replaced difficult-to-maintain wood as the building materials of choice. Then, pay telephones were less and less commonly placed in booths in the United States. In many cities where they were once common, telephone booths have been completely replaced by non-enclosed pay phones.
Before the 1950s the coin-phone charge throughout the country typically was five cents. In the early ‘50s, it climbed to 10 cents in most areas as the Bell system asked for and won rate increases. In the early 1970s the company got the coin charge set at 20 cents. The 25-35 cent calls were in effect from 1984 to the late 1990s.
These days, the history of the phone booth seems to be coming to an end, at least in American cities. Widespread use of mobile phones has made it less and less necessary to provide another way for people to make or take a call when out and about.
SAHS Museum now home to community’s last phone booth
The Springfield Area Historical Society (SAHS) recently acquired the telephone booth that had been in Springfield’s downtown hotel and café for several decades before the building was razed two weeks ago. The telephone booth is now in the Springfield Museum. It is a high-quality wooden model, such as you would have seen in an upscale hotel lobby, train terminal or bus station. The phone booth has a bifold door for privacy and windows to let others know the booth is in use. It is even equipped with a seat.
Enabling technology for mobile phones was first developed in the 1940s but it was not until the mid 1980s that they became widely available. During that time, the telephone booth in the Springfield downtown hotel and café was often used by traveling salesmen who called home and their business offices at the end of their day when they enjoyed an evening meal and an overnight stay.
Today the only pay phone in Springfield is located in the Nuvera office.