It’s the end of an era as phonebooths vanish from our landscape. Poor Clark Kent will have to find another changing room to morph into Superman.
Those iconic glass and aluminum sanctuaries of privacy that once stood on nearly every street corner in New York City are now a relic of the past, more suitable for the Smithsonian than a bustling urban sidewalk in the digital age.
Like an old, reliable workhorse put out to pasture the last phone booth in the city has been removed from its post. Without much fanfare, the forlorn booth was carted away in midtown Manhattan on May 23, and with it a piece of my past.
Once upon a time, a thin dime, (then a quarter) offered a sliver of seclusion amidst the tumult of New York.
But cell phones sealed their fate.
A Room of Own’s Own
Phone booths were a small stage for solitary drama and stood center stage in key moments in my life.
It was in a phonebooth that I had my first kiss at fifteen in 1970. It was a rainy day- perfect phone booth weather- when my first crush and I dashed into the nearest booth on Broadway to get out of a sudden summer storm.
With the torrential rain dripping down the graffiti-covered bi-fold glass doors, and our drenched teenage bodies crammed together in the small steamy space, this boy I had loved since eighth grade leaned over to kiss me, steaming up the booth even more.
Phone booths offered discretion at a time when there were often no alternatives. Like church confessionals, they could be a sanctuary of privacy, seclusion, and confession.
There was the March morning in 1988 when the solitude of a phone booth was instrumental in my decision to get married.
Despite the fairy tale proposal by my then long-time boyfriend Hersh who the evening before had gotten down on one knee at one of the city’s eternally romantic restaurants, I had yet to answer yes.
Uncertain whether I should make this big leap into marriage I needed to discreetly speak with my best friend for advice. I beelined it to the sanctuary of a phone booth down the block from the upper west side apartment I shared with Hersh.
Thirty-three years later the decision hashed out in that phone booth proved to be a good one. By the way, that phone booth on West End Avenue and 90th Street lasted nearly as long.
Phone booths often served as make-shift offices. The long bank of booths that graced Manhattan’s hotel lobbies and office buildings were a haven for out-of-town businessmen, reporters, and self-employed folks like me.
As a freelance illustrator, I knew the location of every good phone bank in midtown in which to stop in between appointments with art directors at ad agencies and publishers. Scoring a vacant booth, I would fish in my overstuffed pocketbook for coins to call in for my messages from my phone answering service “Bells a Ringing.”
Seated in a wooden phone booth big enough for Clark Kent to change in, was big enough for me to stuff my artist’s portfolio. With the electric fan overhead quietly whirling, the overhead light cast just enough light for me to scribble my messages in my Filofax resting on the small shelf.
It was in one of those midtown booths that I learned Doubleday wanted to publish my book “This Years Girl.”
I emerged from the booth as empowered as the bespeckled reporter.
And it was in one of the brand new glass and aluminum phone booths that had just been introduced by Ma Bell, that my own Ma Betty called my father to tell him exciting news of another new arrival. It was July 1954 and she had just learned she was pregnant with me.
Dashing out of her doctor’s office building bursting with the hot off the press announcement, Betty suddenly spied one of the hot off the assembly line Airlight phone booths on the Queens street corner.
With its red panel at the top of all four sides and the word “TELEPHONE” in white letters, it beckoned. She squealed with excitement. Just like the ads promised “Any time you see one of these new Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booths you’re likely to want to go tight in and make a call. Why wait till to get home to make the call?”
She closed the sparkling glass bi-fold door, fumbled in her purse for a dime, and eagerly dialed my Dad.
Whether I got top billing over the new outdoor phone booth was never clear.
The Dawning of a New Era of Phone Booths
Unlike my mother, I would take for granted these ubiquitous structures that would be firmly etched into urban, suburban, and roadway landscapes.
When they appeared they were revolutionary.
Outdoor telephone booths made of wood began to appear in the 1940s during World War II at military bases, and they allowed military personnel to make calls to families back home.
However, it was during the 1950s that telephone booths became prevalent in the American landscape and would change how we communicated.
Travel and Be Home
In 1954 new Airlight outdoor phone booths were introduced by Bell Telephone Systems and they would be life-changing.
Larger, well lighted, and comfortable. Designed for use in all kinds of weather, the roof and frame were made of aluminum. The construction was durable enough to stand up to the elements unlike the old wooden ones and the amount of glass along with the louvers on the sides allowed its namesake elements — air and light — to flood the booth.
There’s Something New in Phonebooths
“Anytime you see one of these new Airlight Outdoor telephone booths you’re likely to want to go right in and make a call,” the copy to this 1954 ad reads.
They are mighty attractive and comfortable . They are well lighted day and night. Tip-up directories are in easy reach. There’s an ample shelf for packages and handbags. The Airlight outdoor booths are never closed. They are available for service 24 hours a day every day of the year.
By bringing the telephone closer to you we bring you closer to everybody.
On the Road
Phonebooths once a common sight along a highway were a boon to travelers offering security
“Like a lighthouse on the highway,” according to a 1959 Bell Telephone advertisement touting its visibility at night
Lighted outdoor telephone booths are multiplying on American highways. They and half a million other public telephones- in stores, stations, hotels and motels airport and other places make telephone service more useful and convenient day or night.
Outdoor Phone Booths are found in the likeliest places. They are convenient. They’re available- when and where folks need them.
The Airlight Booth was a welcome sight at night.
It’s a reassuring lighthouse along city streets and major highways. When you see it, you know that service and protection are always near.
Public telephones save you time and trouble. Use them like your own phone to visit a friend, check an address, thank a hostess-to make reports, appointments sales.
There’s always a public phone handy to help you!
Sadly, not so much anymore.
We once wanted public phones in private booths to have intimate, private conversations. Today we have given up privacy to have public conversations on our private cell phones.
In 1905 when AT&T rolled out the first wooden outdoor telephone, the people of Cincinnati were wary. Who in their right mind would want to have a conversation in the middle of the street?
With cell phones, discreet conversations are passe.
People yack loudly walking down the streets, riding in elevators, on trains, eating in restaurants, and in waiting rooms. Cellular phones have turned the city’s public spaces into the pulpit of the personal, as pedestrians without a whiff of self-consciousness argue and discuss personal problems on their smartphones.
Privacy, like the phonebooths themselves, is becoming a thing of the past.
You’re out of luck Superman.