pay phone history

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pay phone history

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Sep 30, 2008 9:07 pm

In the posting dropping dimes on the discussion of pay phones and pay phone history arose. I think this topic warrants its own posting and will make it easier for anyone searching for PAY PHONE HISTORY to find it.

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.
<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>
COIN BOX: A coin-operated telephone, or a kiosk containing such a telephone
<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>
Payphone Costology

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.
<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>
(quotes from Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)

Ken – September 30, 2008

Re: pay phone history

Post by JANE DOErell » Tue Sep 30, 2008 9:34 pm

I was watching a 1954 French movie on DVD last evening. The person wanting to use the phone bought a "token" at the bar and used that to make his call. Based on some of the finer cars in the DVD I would guess the setting of the story in the DVD was probably 1950s.

Re: pay phone history

Post by p. g. cox » Tue Sep 30, 2008 11:26 pm

More on payphone costology. Most payphones were not self-supporting and were only placed for the benefit of the public's convenience. Maintenance was and still is high due to the abuse that they received from users and the upkeep required to keep them operational and wholesome. Certain elements of the public seemed to regard them as a public toilet.
If I have used the past tense in this article it is because they are something that has become obsolecent, being supplanted by the ubiquitous cell phone. When was the last time that you used a payphone?
The only place that I am aware of where payphones were profitable was at Camp Pendleton CA in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, where the Marine Corps trainees would be allowed to call home. There was a bank of 50 of them and they ran full blast for two hours every evening. There was even a phone company employee on site to empty the coin containers as they filled, even though many calls were made collect.
Signature: Pete.

Re: pay phone history

Post by hsargent » Wed Oct 01, 2008 2:56 pm

Pay phones were a subject of vandalism which encouraged their demise.

I remember in an early Superman Movie that Clark pauses for a moment as he looks to an pay phone with no booth.

Are Pay Phones still common outside of the US? I know that Europe is very advanced in cell phones so it would be interesting if they continue to be available for whatever reason.
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: pay phone history

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Oct 01, 2008 3:17 pm

They are still quite common in the UK. Many of the iconic red boxes have preservation orders on them, and lots are now "cashless". Some have keyboards for sending e-mails even.

I have to say though that there is certainly a culture of "use them or lose them" whenever the chance arises.

You might like to have a look at this site .
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: pay phone history

Post by Tony Farg » Wed Oct 01, 2008 6:30 pm

I was disappointed that "this site" did not show the special ones that we installed in Soho, London, to blend in with the "Chinatown" surroundings
I haven't got a photo, but they were roofed in the style of a pagada. Whether a pagoda is chinese or japanese is another question, but at least they looked different!
By the way, I say "we" because at the time I was a member of British Telecom's West End District management.

Re: pay phone history

Post by p. g. cox » Wed Oct 01, 2008 7:56 pm

Interestingly I am old enough to have been a member of the old Post Office Engineering Dept. (Bedford Area) with our bottle-green Morris Minor vans. I spent many a blissful hour building the red telephone kiosks (K6) from scratch. They came in kit form and took a couple of days to assemble, after which we painted them in the familiar Post Office red and finally installed the equipment. They were then shipped on a specially designed trailer for installation at the site. Ah happy days.
Signature: Pete.

Re: pay phone history

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Oct 02, 2008 12:42 am

.. Downunder we still have a pyphone nework although the increase in use of mobile phones has seen payphones becoming harder to find .. we had all the same problems with vandalism .. modern adaptions include phnecards, credit card facilities and even a phone that had a small TTY unit to allow a person to ring a deaf person .. can also confirm that in Kiwi there is a good payphone network .. I have been using the term payphone but we would always call them public phones .. just remembered the crazy doors they once trialled .. they pivoted and you had to have a degree in enineering to know just how to push/pull them to get them to open ..

WoZ in the snow
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: pay phone history

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Oct 02, 2008 11:09 am

This thread calls to mind a memorable phone call that my mother once made.

It was 24 December 1962. The day before Christmas Eve, an area of high pressure had brought cold easterly winds to much of the British Isles, and by dawn on the 24th the temperature was around –4 degrees Celsius, rising to –1 by late afternoon.

Having no car, my mother was used to running her errands on foot; and as my brother and I were just 2 and 4 years old, and there was no-one to babysit us during the day, every time she went out of the house she had to take us with her.

Thus it was that after lunch that day she opened our front door and eased the pram containing my brother onto the wide porch step; then with her hand grasping one end of a four-foot leash, she led me outside. She had loosened the straps of the leather harness at the other end so that they would accommodate my felt duffel coat.

After unbarring the gate that my parents habitually kept locked, my mother pointed the baby carriage to the right and tied her end of my leash to the handlebar. We began to walk along the busy road, heading for the phone box that lay half a mile away on the other side of the street. Twice we had to stop at the kerb, and watched the plumes of our breath until the lights changed and we could cross over.

By the time we passed the Rex Cinema the chill breeze that probed into my thin woollen mittens was palpably nipping my fingers. Several times I dragged on my leash, complaining about the cold, and several times my mother had to coax me onwards. Fortunately, by then the phone box was in sight, and she encouraged me to keep going by explaining that we would soon be able to get out of the wind.

Once we reached the kiosk, my mother set the footbrake of the pram. She untied the leash from the handlebar and slid her hands under my brother, who woke up.

With her infant now wailing in the crook of her left arm, she swung open the heavy metal door, and we all crowded into the three-foot-by-three-foot interior. In front of us was an imposing-looking handset mounted on a large black coinbox, but what most caught my upward gaze was the shiny chrome dial and the two adjacent buttons. There was also a strange metallic sort of smell mixed with another, vaguely familiar, odour.

The sound of my brother crying in this cramped space seemed to be double the usual volume, and my mother did her best to calm him down with soothing noises. Once he had reached the stage of merely sniffling, with her right hand she lifted the strap of her handbag over her head and placed the bag on the narrow ledge atop the coinbox. Then she set my brother on the shelf above the phonebook holder so that he sat with his back to wall of the kiosk with his short little legs dangling over the edge.

“Stay still now!” she admonished him.

She unhooked the receiver and dialled 100: in 1962, it was not possible to place a call abroad direct.

“Hello? Operator? I want to call a number in Denmark.”

She dictated it to the man at the other end.

Out of the earpiece I heard the miniature roar of his voice. “Well, madam, that will be… Let me see... nineteen shillings and sixpence. Now, I’m going to ask you to count the money into the coin slot. Then I’ll dial the number, and as soon as the other party answers you must press button A.”

“Yes,” my mother responded. “But I’m afraid it’s going to be mostly pennies and threepences.” For many weeks she had been saving up for this call out of her housekeeping, a few coppers at a time.

“That’s all right. I’ll count it in with you.”

My mother reached inside her handbag and fished out her purse, which was bulging with all the small change she had collected. She raised her left shoulder so that she could cradle the receiver under her chin as she counted out the coins.

“Okay, madam. Are you ready?”


“Then I’ll ask you to start inserting the coins in the slot.”

“One penny,” my mother began. “Tuppence, threepence, sixpence, ninepence, tenpence, elevenpence, one shilling, and sixpence, two shillings. And a penny, and tuppence, threepence, sixpence, sevenpence, eightpence…”

At this point my brother, who until then had been sitting quietly on the shelf, started to swing his legs. My mother was busy inserting the ninth penny after the two shillings and did not notice his legs beginning to move. Suddenly his foot came into contact with her left wrist and the purse flew out of her grasp, scattering the coins so that they clattered against the glass windowpanes before landing on the floor.

“Oh, NO!” my mother exclaimed. “Look what you’ve done!”

“Pardon, madam?”

“No, no, not you! My son! He’s knocked all the coins out of my purse! I’m going to have to pick them up off the floor before we can carry on! …Hello?”

If the man at the other end of the line was annoyed, he tried not to let it show.

“All right. Just take your time.”

At the same moment, both my mother and I reached down towards the coins on the ground. The next thing I knew, I felt a heavy blow against my head.

“Agh!” exclaimed my mother. I began to cry, probably more from the shock of the collision of our heads than from actual pain.

“Oh, god!” my mother called out, rubbing her own head with her left hand and mine with her right. The dangling receiver swung violently from side to side and banged against the side of the kiosk. On the shelf, my brother started crying again.

“Just calm down, both of you!” she ordered us. “Quiet! …Erik, just stay there while I pick them up!”

As quickly as she could, she collected the scattered coins and replaced them in her purse.

At last they were all crammed back into place. By then my brother and I were mostly quiet again.

“Hello?” she said into the receiver. “Are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m still here,” came the resigned voice at the other end. “Are you ready to carry on?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Okay… We got to two shillings and ninepence before your little accident.”

“Right!” my mother agreed. Once more she reached into her purse.

“Two shillings and tenpence, elevenpence, three shillings…”

For several minutes she continued to count in the coins. “Nineteen shillings and sixpence!” she finally announced with a note of triumph in her voice.

“Good!” the operator said. “Now I’m going to call the number.”

We could hear the clicks in the earpiece as he dialled the many digits. Then came the sound of the long ring tones as the call connected with the phone at the far end.

“Hallo!” It was my grandfather’s voice.

“Right!” the operator cut in. “Now press button A!”

My mother pressed the button. Two seconds passed. Then a great tinkling and clattering could be heard as the coins dropped through the machine.

Except that they were not dropping into the coinbox, but into the coin return slot.

“WHAT DID YOU DO!” the operator cried. “YOU PRESSED BUTTON B, DIDN’T YOU?”

“Oh! Yes!” my mother said. “Oh, NO!

“You know what this means, don’t you?” exclaimed the operator. “We’re going to have to start all over again!
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Re: pay phone history

Post by Bobinwales » Thu Oct 02, 2008 3:09 pm

A great story Erik, worth both the remembering and the telling.

My memory is much less dramatic. My grandmother, who lived in Swansea asked me to go with her to the telephone box so that I could place the call, and she could speak to her daughter, my aunt.

Off we went, I must have been about 16, so this was early 60s. We arrived, I placed the call and handed the receiver to my grandmother, who proceeded to shout on top of her voice.

When she had finished, I asked why she had shouted only to be told, “It’s a long way to Nottingham.”
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: pay phone history

Post by russcable » Thu Oct 02, 2008 4:08 pm

I'm putting it up for a Bulwer-Lytton Award... My mother, who was a lovely woman in her own right, retrieved her coin purse, which she had received as a young girl from a distant cousin now lost to us, and the bright green, a color between yellow and blue yet somehow more pleasing than both, of its ribbons, which were curly and somewhat water-stained, caused my little brother, born on a Monday sometime between March and April, to giggle raucously which was not unlike the jingling of the tuppence pieces inside the purse with their images of Elizabeth the I who became Queen after a power struggle between ...

Re: pay phone history

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Oct 02, 2008 4:51 pm

Excellent, Russ!

The sooner you finally win something, the better!
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Re: pay phone history

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu Oct 02, 2008 10:37 pm

And thank you, Bob.
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Re: pay phone history

Post by Shelley » Fri Oct 10, 2008 7:25 pm

What a pleasure it's been to read this thread! Really great stories . . .
I do not own a cellphone and, needless to say, am more than a little worried about the disappearance of public payphones. When you need one, you really need one. There are very few of us cell-less holdouts -- certainly not enough to force the phone companies to keep and maintain payphones if they just lose money on them. It's not that we're trying to "live off the grid", exactly . . .
I'd hate to have to get with the program.

Re: pay phone history

Post by p. g. cox » Sat Oct 11, 2008 5:17 am

Shelley, I'm with you. I have vigorously resisted the urge to get a cellphone as I have managed very well without one for all my life. Even though I must admit to their utility, particularly in the business world, I wonder sometimes what on earth people find to chatter about endlessly and at the top of their voices. I find them frequently irritating and frankly I enjoy being incommunicado.
Public phones, at least the credit card ones, will probably remain in limited use for some time. I have found that a prepaid phone card to be the most convenient way to make calls when traveling as they avoid the exorbitant charges that are assessed by hotels.
Last edited by p. g. cox on Thu Jan 15, 2009 11:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Signature: Pete.

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