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The Rise and Fall of the Telephone Booth

Who You Gonna Call? The Fall of the Phone Booth

In order for Clark Kent to become Superman, he had to hop into a phone booth to change his clothes. Bill and Ted once went on an “excellent adventure” through time traveling in a magical phone booth. As pop culture dictates, it is undeniable that phone booths have had a significant impact on both American culture and the cultures of other nations. However, the time has come where phone booths and other pay phones have become obsolete.



The first phone booth was designed by William Gray in 1889. It was implanted in a Connecticut bank. The difference between Gray’s model and its successors is that callers could wait to pay until after the completion of the call. In 1898, Western Electric changed this system and implemented the prepay system still used today. By 1902, pay telephones had reached such popularity that there were 81,000 installed in the United States. In 1905, the first outdoor model was installed in Cincinnati. It had a wooden structure. In fact, the glass booths weren’t implemented until the 1950s. However, in recent years, the number of pay phones, especially phone booths is rapidly declining. 

  • Katz v United States: Information on an important phone-related Supreme Court case in U.S. history.
  • Red Phone Box: How the public telephone changed from 1880 to today.
  • Red Telephone Kiosk: A more detailed history of the red kiosk and the evolution of its design.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Phone Booth: Take a journey through the life of the phone booth and learn how it rose to prominence and why they are now so uncommon.
  • Telephone Tribute: A brief history and some great pictures that chronicle the life of the pay phone.
  • Telephone World: A history of payphones and all about the different types and styles.
  • Tropes: The pay phone made quite an impact in pop culture. Find out about some of its most popular and lesser known appearances.

Pay Phone Relevance and Usage

Pay phones have certainly seen their heyday. Today, cell phone service providers vie for subscribers. However, pay phones were public. In order for the phone company to earn money, they had to attract more callers. Companies would pay tens of thousands of dollars to a city for a permit to install a phone in a certain location. Some of these places included poorer rural and urban areas. Even today a large number of low-income families do not have phone service in their homes. Many feel that eliminating pay phones would be greatly detrimental to these people.

Despite their imminent extinction, telephone booths have proven useful for other purposes. The city of Shanghai, China has converted 500 former telephone booths into WiFi hotspots. On one hand, this is a positive change because the booth is being used. On the other hand it is somewhat ironic because it new purpose is powering a successor technology. Phone booths are also still useful for advertisers. Just because people no longer enter the booth to make calls, they do pass by. In fact, New York City earns three times as much using its phone booths as ad space than they do using them for their phone services.

  • Advertising on Telephone Booths (PDF): More on phone booths and advertising with some neat, old pictures.
  • Code (PDF): Huntington Beach’s telephone booth criteria. It is similar to that of other cities.
  • The Mojave Desert Phone Box: There is a telephone booth located in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It has since become iconic.
  • Payphones as a Fixture of Culture: There are plenty of reasons a person might want to use a payphone even today.
  • Phones as Billboards: The advertisements posted on telephone booths are just as relevant as ever.
  • Shanghai: Shanghai and some other Chinese cities have decided to convert telephone booths into WiFi hubs so cell phones and other devices will have better service and connectivity.
  • Where Did All the Payphones Go (PDF): A comprehensive essay about the state of payphones in different parts of the world.
  • Why Payphones Matter: Many Americans do not have phone service in their homes and rely on payphones.

The Fall of the Phone Booth

The phone booth was not failed technology under any circumstance. It just became obsolete with the popularity of cell phones and internet communication services such as Skype. Recognizing industry trends, many companies are changing their business models. In 2001, BellSouth was the first phone company to exit the pay phone business. Many others including corporate giant AT&T would follow by the end of the decade.

In addition to technological advancements, phone booths have a separate inferiority: they are frequently vandalized. It is not uncommon to see explicit writing in pen or spray paint and the windows practically beg for hooligans to throw rocks. People leaving bars, intoxicated in the middle of the night are known to use them as restrooms. Even sober pedestrians use them as garbage cans.

  • 1952: Phone booth vandalism has been happening for decades.
  • Death of the Pay Phone?: The cost for using a payphone has increased in Canada so companies can stay afloat.
  • Deterrent (PDF): An article about phone booth decay and vandalism.
  • The Last Phone Booth in NYC: Manhattan was once freckled with phone booths, but now the borough of Manhattan is home to just four.
  • WiFi Phones: How is WiFi technology furthering people away from phone booth usage?