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Thursday, May 19, 2016
History ... Photo ... Society ...

“What’s this?”, you of a younger persuasion might ask upon viewing this picture. Why, this is what the 1960’s looked like! (The 1970’s too, but they were kind of depressing for being mostly a lethargic, warmed-over version of the 1960s.) These here are the remains of honest-to-goodness phone booths! Yes, once upon a time, people in public places depended upon coin-operated telephones to stay in touch with the world. And “Ma Bell”, which is what we lovingly called the AT&T telephone monopoly back then, generously provided its patrons with a glass-enclosed private area (a “phone booth”) with a small seat (which you can see here) and a little desk surface just beneath the phone box.

Ma Bell actually believed that its customers were entitled to some privacy while using its facilities, and thus provided closable doors on most of its phone booths. OK, you could still be seen through the glass windows, but these doors were fairly substantial and worked quite well to block out the surrounding noise. They also kept your own words from being overheard, and if placed outdoors, they would cut down on the windy winter chill or driving rain. (Later on, Ma Bell decided that it was treating its customers too well, and the open phone kiosk became more prominent — you can see the general arrangement of these in the top photo, between the two old-school booths). As to the shot on the right — this is where the phone box used to be, with its slots on top for quarters and dimes and nickles to pay for the call, along with a rotary dial and hand receiver attached via a sturdy metal cord. You still see the connection wires dangling out, faithfully awaiting the call signals that will never come. And note that the soft florescent overhead booth lamps are still lit in the top photo, as though it was just another day in 1967.

And what’s this? Well, once upon a time, people actually depended upon printed books (called “phonebooks”) to find other peoples’ phone numbers. Ma Bell was often nice enough to place a few for public use right next to (or sometimes within) its phone booths. Here are some last remnants, probably published in the early 1980s, awaiting disposal.

For a time in the 20th century, after American became convinced that instant voice communication over large distances was a good thing, but well before cell phones and smart phones progressed from the realms of science fiction stories, phone booths were essential parts of daily life in America. Hope that you enjoyed this little “phone call” from the past!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:32 am      

  1. Jim, Ah, yes! I even miss these things; it was nice to go inside the booth, sit down, and make one’s call in some peace and quiet; surprising how quiet these booths could be. Or maybe it was that things were better made 50 plus or minus years ago.

    The ones you picture were the really CLASSY ones from the 1980s. (Or maybe NYC had these earlier than the Midwest.) There were also the ones that had no booth around them, just a phone or several phones lined up in a row (in places like Union Station where everybody would be calling home [presumably]). But one could always push one’s head in between the phone and the “stand” around the phone so one’s conversation was not heard by others.

    Do you remember the phone booths made of wood? They often were in stores like say ice cream parlors (wonder if anybody remembers THEM any more?) or even taverns, more indoor types of places. They also had a door; only the door had a window, tho.

    Nowadays, I guess it’s have your own phone—–either a cell phone where the minutes are counted or a “smart” phone where one needs “bars” to get a signal. Even these “portable” phones had their “history”. Remember the first ones that were so big they were about the size of a clutch purse. (OK, I’m a woman and think in women’s terms.) Nobody ever tho’t they might fit in a pocket.

    And now I hear that computers are “going out” and everything will be “smart” phones. I guess now that computers actually talk to people (and some people seem to think they are actually talking to a person!) we now have to attribute to phones descriptions that once belonged only to humans.

    Back to phone booths: Going back even further before there were phone booths, there were ONLY black phones in the home (if one had a phone). But these often were “party lines” which meant that two different families shared the same line. So when the phone rang, one might quietly hear someone in addition to the caller listening in on the conversation; news in the neighborhood got around fast that way. What a treat it was to get a single party line! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 19, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

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