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    Auction Finds

    Old dirty and ghostly pay phones

    The four phones looked like they had not been washed or handled in years. They were grimy with dirt from storage, the weather and a lot of sweaty hands. Sitting there on the floor under a table at the auction house, they were ghostly relics.

    They were all ATT touch-tone phones that once cost a quarter to use – or, according to a red/white/blue label on the phone, “Get a 6-minute call for $1.00 anywhere in the U.S.” They were in fact an anachronism – and I suspect totally unrecognizable to many young people who use their latest smart phone to reach out and touch.

    The discarded ATT pay phones at auction were dusty and filthy.

    Some of us still remember that trusty pay phone and the dimes and quarters we carried around to make a phone call. If you were lucky, the phone worked, but they were always so filthy. I haven’t had a need for a pay phone in years – thank goodness. I can remember holding the phones away from my face because I was afraid I’d catch something.

    No one seemed to be pawing the phones at auction, likely because they weren’t sure how to re-constitute them. Scoured, they could be hung on a wall as decoration in your home or retrofitted for use as a working phone without the need of a quarter.

    These phones, once ubiquitous, aren’t around much anymore – which I found out after leaving the auction early because there wasn’t much I wanted to buy. I stopped at a diner-style restaurant for lunch, one of those sleepy neighborhood places where waitresses know the regulars by name.

    As I sat at a booth waiting for a cup of its awesome lima bean soup and a turkey burger, I spied a faux wooden open cabinet with shelf attached to a wall in the glass-enclosed alcove. A series of pockmarked holes stood out on its back wall. I realized that it had once held a pay phone like the ones I had just seen at auction. I was sure that many customers had dropped their coins into the slot, propped their arm on the shelf and made that all important phone call.

    Four pay phones ready to be sold.

    I wondered if that old phone had also ended up like the others. For years, these phones have been slipping out of existence. The major phone companies have gotten out of the pay-phone business or cut back tremendously, and some smaller companies are struggling.

    Pay-phone usage has been declining about 10 percent a year, according to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article. Only 425,000 are still in existence across the country, down from 2.2 million in 2000, the article stated, using information provided by the American Public Communications Council, an industry trade group. The number has dropped from 2.1 million in 1999 to 550,000 in 2009, according to a 2011 article in the Saint Louis Post Dispatch newspaper.

    Where we once went into a convenience store or stood outside it in a phone booth to make a call, we now go inside to use the ATM with our smart phones glued to our ears. They apparently continue to be staples in low-income neighborhoods, airports, truck stops and some other places.

    An illustration from a 1912 catalog from the Gray Telephone Pay Station Co. The coin-operated pay phone was invented by William Gray.

    The first coin-operated telephone was installed in a bank in Hartford, CT, in 1889, and allowed you to make your call and then pay for it, according to several sites that repeated the same history. It was invented by a man named William Gray, who some years before had improved on the baseball catcher protector and sold it to Spalding.

    Western Electric in 1898 brought out the first prepay phone, the No. 5 Coin Collector, which accepted nickels, dimes, quarters and more. In 1905, Bell System installed the first outdoor phone in Cincinnati. Other developments occurred over the years, and pay phones were ubiquitous throughout the country – on sidewalks, and in convenience stores and gas stations.

    Another site – pulling from a 1953 Mechanix Illustrated magazine – said Gray formed his company in 1891, experimented with a pay phone, and eventually set up his finished product on posts, in cabinets and on desks. Here’s a 1912 catalog of pay phones from the Gray Telephone Pay Station Co.

    The first commercial touch-tone phones were introduced in the 1960s.

    I wasn’t around when the pay phones were sold at auction, but I’m sure the buyer got a good price. On the web, I found a new Bell-style pay phone selling at Sam’s Club for $580 (and $298.42 more for an all-season outdoor metal enclosure), and others selling for up to $1,299. On eBay, a working Western Electric touch tone sold for $152. No coin needed.



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