Calling the Curious: Pay Phones and Preservation

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!

Prairie Grove Phone Booth, photo courtesy of NPS.

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!).

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Phone booth at I-5 rest area, Washington.

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.

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Phone booth at I-5 rest area, Washington.

Sources and further reading:

I was pleased to find that both the Prairie Grove Airlight Oudoor Telephone Booth AND the Mohave Telephone Booth are popular enough to have garnered their own fairly extensive Wikipedia pages!

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?

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Phone booth at I-5 rest area, Washington.


7 thoughts on “Calling the Curious: Pay Phones and Preservation

  1. When I was a kid, I was instructed to always carry a dime, later a quarter, in case I was going to be late or something unexpected happened, so I could phone home. I always had that coin in my pocket, but I never needed to use it! I wasn’t crazy about pay phones anyway — those handsets just had to be breeding ground for deadly disease!


    1. This is great! I’m beginning to get the sense that many pay phones have always been fairly unattractive and targets for vandalism… In the US anyway! And now that they aren’t in use, it probably further distances them from their communities. An interesting preservation dilemma!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, that is so interesting that a pay phone was accepted into the National Register! I’m going to go read that form for sure. I did want to add, even though it may seem negative, that some pay phones are operated by really shady companies, so make sure you check any “fine print” about rates. My ex-husband called home for a minute onee, a local call from outside a convention center, and, I kid you not, we got a bill for $27. We contacted the state or whoever and asked if this was a legit bill, and they said yes – that kind-of ripping people off was perfectly legal! Perhaps it’s not anymore, but just wanted to sound a warning.


  3. Thanks, I never knew there was a payphone on the National Register! I write about the year 1962 and try to remind my readers that there were no cellphones back then. But I have a hard time finding working payphones in today’s world to mention.


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