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Telephone Booths in the 1950s by Will Zeilinger

February 3, 2019 by in category Partners in Crime by Janet Elizabeth Lynn & Will Zeilinger tagged as , ,

Ah, the convenience of a smartphone. Almost all of us have one (or more) of these tiny mobile computers and telephones, in one.

Believe it or not, the first mobile telephone call from a hand-held device wasn’t made until April 3, 1973. Cellular phones and smartphones were still decades in the future.

Now, let’s take a look back to the mid-1950s and see what calling home entailed.

If you were not at home, the first order of business was to find a telephone, and you had better have had a pocketful of change because you paid to talk.

In the U.S., one could find “pay phone” inside a telephone booth or just “phone booth” for short, as they were called, on many street corners and in most commercial establishments. On the street, the ubiquitous phone booth featured a folding glass door that afforded some privacy and protection from the elements. They were not air-conditioned, but when you stepped inside and closed the door, an overhead light would come on. That feature was especially helpful at night. By the mid-1950s, most were upgraded from a wood and glass structure to a weatherproof glass and aluminum booth that was large enough for one (maybe two, if you were friends).

If you’re too young to have seen one in person, you’ve no doubt, seen them in old movies and TV shows.

They were found inside almost any hotel, train station, bank, restaurant or office building. You would have seen rows of wooden phone booths lining a wall somewhere near the entrance. Many of them had a seat inside for long conversations. During breaks between the action at conventions or meetings, people would line up to use the half dozen or so telephones in larger hotels, and in smaller hotels, there may have been two or three.

Today many hotels and convention spaces have mysterious empty areas that will cause the visitor to wonder the reason behind the wasted space. The answer is telephone booths once stood in those places before they were removed because they were no longer needed.

To make a call you would first deposit a nickel or dime in one of the round holes at the top. “Dial” it on the rotary dial . . . one digit at a time. A live telephone operator would come on the line and tell you how much money to put in, based on the number. If you didn’t know the person’s number, you’d look up the person by name from the telephone directory book, suspended under the phone. If you needed to make a long distance call, the live operator would handle that for you as well.

Since the 1950s were part of a decade of fads, one popular fad was “Phone Booth stuffing.” The point of this was to see how many people would fit into a phone booth designed for one person. From what I could learn, the record for cramming the most people into a standard sized telephone booth was 25. This was accomplished by a group of South African college students.

Too many people? You want a little privacy when you make a phone call? In today’s culture, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find privacy in a public place when you need to have a conversation (except maybe, in your car) I’m sure you’ve been in a restaurant or standing in a checkout line, and had to endure someone’s inane conversation right behind you or next to your ear. Well—good news! Some establishments are resurrecting telephone booths by providing an enclosed compartment with a comfortable seat and a door (see phone booth) for people to make or take private cell calls without having to go out to the parking lot. What goes around,comes around.


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