A rotary phone that was both baffling & nostalgic
  • It looks like a home phone but this one’s for the car
  • Old dirty and ghostly pay phones
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    Auction Finds

    A wooden phone booth from the 1950s

    I had looked all over the auction house for the phone booth. I had seen it on the website – an anachronism now but quite ubiquitous and popular in its day.

    I had scoured the box-lots room, squeezed through the narrow aisles between the top-end furniture, and stood outside in the cold morning on the ramp where they kept the mid-priced furniture. I had even ventured into the back yard where patio furniture and other eclectic items had been set up on the ground, not expecting to find such a lovely item out there.

    1950s phone booth

    A 1950s phone booth with rotary phone, waiting to be auctioned.

    I finally gave up, assuming that the auction house had put it away for another day. As I stood diagonally from the box-lots room inside the auction house – trying to decide whether to stay or leave since I hadn’t seen anything that beckoned me – I spotted it. The phone booth was hiding in plain sight, blending in between two other tall pieces of furniture.

    It apparently had been in my blind spot, because I had passed right by it several times as I entered the box-lots room – at one point, practically standing in the doorway.

    The booth’s folding glass door was open, exposing a 1950s rotary telephone with slots for 5 cents, 10 cents and a quarter, and a low wooden ledge for a seat.

    1950s phone booth

    The phone booth with door opened.

    The counter beneath the phone held a 1974 phone book for three New Jersey towns far away from the auction house and closer to Atlantic City. Above the phone was a motor with an on-and-off switch for a fan in the ceiling. Affixed to the walls was a sign with a message, along with two ads for an ambulance service and a bail bondsman.

    The mahogany booth was in very good condition, considering how much it must have been used and abused. Even the walls, floor and equipment were clean. I apparently was not the only one impressed with it: Three absentee bids had already been affixed to the front, and the furniture auction was still about six hours away.

    This wasn’t the first time I’d come across pay phones at auction. Last year, another auction house was selling four newer-model kiosk-style pay phones with slits, not slots, for coins. Like the phone booth, they were replicas of another era, long forgotten by those who lived through them and unknown to those who grew up on smart phones.

    1950s phone booth

    The phone booth with the glass door closed. The three green circles represent absentee bids.

    The phone booth at auction reminded me of old 1940s and 1950s movies, with Cary Grant closed up in one of them,  talking to one of his female co-stars or a colleague. Or a newspaper reporter, Graflex camera in his hand, the door open.

    By that time, pay phones and phone booths had been around for more than 60 years. What were called pay telephone stations were created way before the pay phones, though, according to telephonetribute.com. Dating back to around 1878, they were manned by telephone attendants who accepted payment after the call was completed. According to the website, some attendants would lock patrons in the stations to make sure they wouldn’t abscond without paying.

    One site noted that during the last decade of the 19th century, 300,000 phones were being used. By the turn of the 20th century, there were 3 million phones and 81,000 phone booths, and by World War II, half of all homes in America had a phone.

    1950s phone booth

    A fan and motor in the phone booth.

    The pay phone was invented by William Gray, who had previously improved on the baseball catcher protector and sold it to Spalding. Gray set up the first coin-operated pay phone in a Hartford, CT, bank in 1889. Like the stations, patrons would make their call and pay afterward.

    In 1898, Western Electric produced the first prepay phone, which accepted nickels, dimes, quarters and more. Then at the turn of the 20th century, the Bell System installed the first outdoor phone in Cincinnati.

    One of the first people to have a phone was Mark Twain, who satirized the first phone conversation in an essay in 1880 and seemed to have blasted the instrument pretty often. President Rutherford B. Hayes had a phone booth installed outside the Oval Office in the late 1870s. The phone number was 1, but he didn’t get many calls because not too many people in Washington had phones.

    A president would not get a phone in his office until Herbert Hoover in 1929.

    1950s phone booth

    A rotary phone and phone book inside the booth.

    The most famous phone booth was located in the Mojave Desert in California, placed there in the 1960s for miners and local residents. It became a legend in the 1990s and people seemed to have made pilgrimages to it. Folks also called the phone number, hoping that someone would answer. The booth was removed and the phone number retired by Pacific Bell in 2000.

    An independent movie “Mojave Phone Booth” with Steve Guttenberg and Annabeth Gish was made about it in 2006, and someone created a website for it.

    I wasn’t around when the phone booth sold at auction, but I was curious about the asking price on the web. One retail site had one for sale for $2,495. An auction house in Washington state sold one in 2008 for $480. Two years ago, Pennsylvania State University was trying to unload several of them for a starting bid of $750 each on eBay. There were no takers at that time.

    1950s phone booth

    Items inside the phone booth: At left, phone numbers for an ambulance service and a bail bondsman; center, a printed message affixed to the wall, and right, a 1974 phone book.




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