Harry and Jane, The mention of the 5 cent phone call, which I also remember from my very young youth in New York City, got me to wondering about the evolution of the pay phone, how pay phone prices have varied over the years, and whether the pay phone is going the way of the dodo bird. It would seem that they are in a death spiral, with the dominance of the cell phone (but do cell phones work in such subterranean places as New York City subways?). In fact, “Will kids born in the next 10 years ever see a pay phone?” Some think they will (see Will the payphone survive? AT&T to sell off its 65,000 remaining payphones ), said to be an AT&T press release of December 5, 2007.
But pay phone usage has definitely experienced a very deep decline in recent years:
<2002 & 2007 “In 1902, there were about 81,000 PAY PHONES across the country; in 1960, there were a million. The number peaked at around 2.5 million around 1998, but today [[as of December, 2007]] that figure has dropped to [[1 million]]. The sea change occurred in the fall of 1998 when price wars erupted after flat rate pricing and expanded calling areas were introduced . . .”—New York Times, November 24, 2002 & Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2007>
For a history of the PAY PHONE see here, which is said to be excerpted from an AT&T press release of October 2, 1991. I don’t doubt that it is since facts stated in other reliable sources such as the New York Times article of November 24, 2002 titled The Yakety-Yak Backlash seem to be based on this AT&T release.
The above histories tell us that the coin PAYPHONE / PAY PHONE was preceded by pay telephone stations or PAY STATIONS (see 1888 quote), which are said to have been in use in 1878. Early on payphones were also referred to as COIN BOXES (see 1906 quote), named for the box in which the money was deposited. I’ve never heard either expression, but I found examples of these names still being used in 1971, 1974, 2001, and 2004 (see quotes below). And standard dictionaries do define PAY STATION as being a synonym for PAY PHONE (coin or credit card).
The early PAY STATIONS were supervised by telephone company attendants or agents (such as an employee in a hotel where a station might be located) who collected the money due after people made their calls (see 1888 quote), but I don’t know what the going rate was in those early times. The first public coin telephone, which was a ‘post pay’ machine in which the coins were deposited after the call was made, was installed in a bank in Hartford , Connecticut in 1889. The first automatic ‘prepay station’ in which coins were deposited before placing a call, the Western Electric No. 5 Coin Collector, went into use in Chicago in 1897 and accommodated nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and silver-dollars, but rates varied from company to company (from 1894 to about 1900, six-thousand independent phone companies sprang up).
PAY STATION U.S.: A public payphone; (also) a location in which public payphones are available.
COIN BOX: A coin-operated telephone, or a kiosk containing such a telephone<1888 “At Sam Brassey's suggestion the post-office had been arranged as a public PAY STATION of the Seaside Hotel Telephone Company.”—Century Magazine, June, page 307/1>
<1906 “The lack of adequate public PAY STATIONS stations prevented the popularization of the telephone, and restricted its use to the wealthy classes.”—Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 21, page 126>
<1948 “When you drop a nickel in a PAY STATION and dial a call . . . as many as 1000 telephone relays go into action.”—Time Magazine, 21 June, page 2>
1974 “Police said Norton had answered a call from two men using a PAY STATION, asking that a cab pick them up at a motel.”—Spartanburg Herald (South Carolina), 24 April, page A3/4>
2001 “BellSouth announced in February it will eliminate PAY STATION service, saying the proliferation of cellular telephones and interactive wireless devices has caused pay phone use to decline over recent years.”—Macon telegraph (Georgia), Nexus, 22 April, page C1>
<2004 “As Sprint technicians work around the clock to restore service to Florida residents affected by Hurricane Frances, the company has installed mobile PAY PHONE STATIONS at various locations and is offering free local calls. . . . Each PAY STATION has four pay phones”—PR Newswire, 8 September>
Payphone Costology<1906 “5 Prepayment COIN BOXES . . . have been provided.”—Annual Report of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company>
<1960 “A portable COIN_BOX telephone will reach every bed.”—The Times (London), 31 October, page 14/7>
<1968 “It was a funny sort of call. . . From one of those COIN BOXES, so it couldn't be your friend from London.”—Night Encounter by A. Gilgert, xi. page 171>
<1969 Guardian 4 July 18/6 “Minimum charges for telephone calls from COIN BOXES will be cheaper when decimal currency is fully introduced in 1971.”—The Guardian (London), 4 July, page 18/6>
I’m not sure when the good old 5 cent phone call, which was around in New York City when I was kid in the 1940s (and which Harry recalls from Louisiana in the 1960s), had become the standard there, but I did find that the price in NYC rose to 10 cents in 1951 (see quote). By 1976 (see quote below) the price had risen to 15 and 20 cents in some states with New York holding at a dime and Louisiana being the bargain at still a nickel. In 1982 (see quote below) the price ranged in various states from 10 cents to 25 cents, with New York and 21 other states still 10 cents. In 1984 (see quote below), New York raised its rates to a quarter, which was still holding in 1994. In 2001 (see quote below) Verizon bumped the price in New Jersey from 35 cents to 50 cents and in 2002 (see quote below) in New York from the dime to 50 cents. I haven’t used a pay phone in many years, but I’m guessing that the standard nationwide is still 50 cents.
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)<1951 “Coin Box Phone Calls Go To 10 Cents Today: . . . 4000 maintenance men [go] into the field today to administer the coup de grâce to the 5-cent phone call at 92,000 PAY STATIONS in the city, 15, 000 more in Nassau and southern Westchester Counties and an additional 28,000 in the rest of the state.”—New York Times, 6 January, page 1>
<1976 “The 10 cent phone call is going the way of the 10 cent stamp. . . . Bell Telephone affiliates now seek to raise the price of local coin phone calls to 20 cents from 10 cents [[approved in 1977]]. In April, 1974, North Carolina became the first state to allow the phone company to charge 20 cents for coin calls. Since then, Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Arizona and Colorado have joined at 20 cents. . . . Washington, Oklahoma and District of Columbia allowed 15 cent charges. Decisions are pending in 17 other states. . . The bargain state is Louisiana where a coin call still costs just a nickel, as it did everywhere in 1950.”—New York Times, 25 January, page 123>
<1982 “Pay-telephone calls in New Jersey, which have cost 10 cents for 28 years, will cost 20 cents in about two weeks. . . New Jersey will thus join 27 other states in charging more than a dime for calls from pay phones. At present, the charge is 25 cents in nine states, 20 cents in 15 states and 15 cents in three states . New York and Connecticut are among the 22 states in which the cost remains b10 cents[/b].”— New York Times, 16 April, page B2>
<1984 “Pay Phone Users Put in Their 2 Bits: It may still be a penny for your thoughts, but it is now a quarter for your voice. The cost of a pay-telephone call in New York State rose from a dime this weekend, and at city phone booths, callers reacted with surprise, resignation and some disgust to the price increase. . . ‘I had just gotten change for a quarter to make call,’ said Catherine Vandorn, who was in the Times Square subway station. ‘I put the dime in, and a voice on the other end asked for 25 cents. I thought I was hearing things”—”New York Times, 2 July, page B8>
<1994 “Current law limits charges on the first five minutes to 25 cents for local calls, but the independents can charge whatever they want for the time after that. The bill would effectively cap those additional charges to 25 cents per five minutes.”—New York Times, 29 June, page A1>
<2001 “Verizon increased rates for its 62,000 pay phones in New Jersey to 50 cents for a local call of unlimited time, up from 35 cents for a timed call, company officials said yesterday. New York Times, 10 November, page D1> [[as did Qwest a big provider out West and my provider here in Colorado]]
<2002 “Making a local call from a Verizon pay phone in New York State will soon require more than just a quarter — it will take two of them. Verizon began switching its pay phones in the state yesterday to charge 50 cents a call, which will give callers unlimited talking time. The 25-cent charge bought three minutes of talking time. In the coming weeks, all of Verizon’s 110,000 pay phones in the state will be set to the new price . . . Verizon’s pay phone prices have been unchanged since 1984 . . . A state regulation agreement that kept the price at 25 cents expired this year . . .”—The New York Times, 12 March, page B6>
Ken – September 30, 2008