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A Brief History

Pay phones sprang from the idea of communication as a necessity. Their history provides a compressed summary of socio-economic urban evolution, from their initial rise in popularity through their later downward slide into obsolesce. Upon their introduction at the dawn of the twentieth century, public phones enjoyed a brief fling with glamour. Billed as private offices, they were made with hardwood and leather and staffed by concierge attendants. In the 1920s, public phones were standardized as self-serve, coin-operated models and became pervasive. By the 1940s, they had moved outdoors, cementing their role as a popular social nexus. From the 1950s on, public phone booths were a standard feature of popular culture. Their modern, four-sided glass cabins were associated with comic book heroes (Superman’s changing station), mystery thrillers (Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds), and the anonymous surveillance “tips” made in films. In the 1970s, this same untraceable trait helped the booths become locales for crime, urban mafias, and drug dealers. In response, their design was altered from a closed box to an open, three-sided pedestal. By the late 1990s, these same city booths had earned a bad rap as “risky facilities,” rumored to be repositories for discarded needles. From then on, payphones slid further into decline as outcast denizens of the city. In the 2000s, as mobile technology became individualized and ubiquitous, the booths’ trademark function was rendered irrelevant, and their outside shells repurposed for advertising. More recently, tracking beacons were surreptitiously installed, to push advertisements, and “spy” on consumers roaming the streets.

Today, there are still 1,300 active phone booths in Manhattan. Many are still in working condition; yet perform different functions from those originally intended. Inside the cabins, the blank metal sheeting is often used as a blackboard, a tablet to paste, stamp, scratch, sign or graffiti with codes and slogans. Outside, their design reflects an aesthetic mash-up: perforated metal sheeting and fluorescent tubing mix with plastic ceilings and LED lights. While some booths still wear the name “TITAN,” a misnomer for their modest size, others are stamped with a simple, objectifying “Phone” on top. These days they pass by largely unnoticed or avoided. In a city where real estate is considered a golden denominator, phone booths are tiny angles of unknown space, ancient islands, pagan gods from a prior era.

–Bree Zucker