They aren’t glamorous, and they’ve gone from utilitarian to unnecessary in a surprisingly short amount of time. Their decline in use came so quickly that you may not have noticed them disappearing from cultural landscapes across America. What am I talking about? The pay phone, of course!
As of last week, I couldn’t have told you the last time I’d seen a phone booth. It had been that long. But lately they’ve been popping up across the preservation world. At the end of last year, the Prairie Grove Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth in Arkansas became the first telephone booth listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 99 Percent Invisible had a fantastic podcast on a telephone booth in the Mohave Desert last month (I highly recommend a listen!), and my fellow preservationist Kaitlin of Preservation in Pink posted a pay phone photo on Instagram, querying viewers on the preservation trend.
Pay phones have even been part of popular music culture surprisingly recently: Maroon 5’s “Payphone” was a hit song in 2012, though even they had to concoct an unlikely scenario that leads to a dead cellphone (and an exploding car) to explain why Adam Levine is even using a pay phone in the first place (it’s a violent video, but you only have to watch to second 0:13 to see that the phone booth they filmed was the same design as the National Register phone booth in Arkansas–luckily the latter is much better preserved!).
All this told, you can understand my excitement when I found two fully intact phone booths at a rest area on I-5 in Washington this week. Fresh from Roman Mars’ Mohave Desert podcast, I knew what I had to do. I had to see if the phone worked. And, guys, there was a dial tone. I gathered my change only to learn that while 50 cents covers local calls, I didn’t know how to call collect for a long-distance call (and who memorizes phone numbers anymore? Of course I didn’t know any local numbers and was planning to leave a message on my parents’ home phone). By this time, I had acquired a number of strange looks from other rest area users and eventually abandoned my effort. As I stepped away, a man expressed his concern: “I haven’t seen anyone use a pay phone in a long time! Are you okay?” Unfortunately, my excitement was mostly lost on him.
The next time, I have a plan. I will locate the pay phone’s number and have an accomplice call me. A la the Mohave telephone booth, I just want to hear it ring. Though this time, I will be answering it in the desert that is a rest area full of cell phone users who don’t know what it means to call collect.
Sources and further reading:
Of course, I would never just leave you a Wikipedia page. You can actually read the full National Register nomination for the Prairie Grove phone booth here.
If you didn’t catch it already, here is a link to the 99 Percent Invisible article and podcast on the Mohave telephone booth.
The photo of the Prairie Grove Phone Booth is courtesy of the National Park Service and can be found here.
Finally, pay phones: what do you think? Worth it to preserve a few in place or let them disappear from the landscape?