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Phone booths used to be for stuffing, not just calling

Published 9:35am Friday, March 28, 2014

How many people can you cram into a telephone booth?

Phone booth packing was a 1950s fad whereby a bunch of people crammed themselves into a telephone booth. Why would anyone do this? Well, to college kids in 1959, it was all the rage, even getting to a competitive level with college against college.

It was the thing to do with all of your friends. It involved getting at least 10 people together and seeing how many you could get to fit into a phone booth. The question arose whether packing into a phone booth meant the whole body, half a body or just a part of a body? Should the door be able to close or could it remain opened?

When Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson had to shout into the telephone it annoyed their Boston landlady. One night Bell rolled some blankets into a loose tunnel and crawled in with his telephone. From there the telephone booth turned into an upright glass and aluminum booth.

Later came the walkup booth and then the drive-up booth. Lighted outdoor booths gave a reassurance that help was near by.

The first public phone booth was designed by William Gray in 1889. The difference between Gray’s model and its successors is that callers could wait to pay until after the completion of the call. In 1898, Western Electric changed this system and implemented the prepay system still used today.

By 1902, pay telephones had reached such popularity that there were 81,000 installed in the United States. In 1905, the first outdoor model was installed in Cincinnati. It had a wooden structure.

In fact, the glass booths weren’t implemented until the 1950s. However, in recent years, the number of pay phones, especially phone booths, have disappeared.

Today, cell phone service providers vie for subscribers. However, pay phones were public. In order for the phone company to earn money, they had to attract more callers. Companies would pay tens of thousands of dollars to a city for a permit to install a phone in a certain location. Some of these places included poorer rural and urban areas. Even today a large number of low-income families do not have phone service in their homes.

The phone booth was not failed technology under any circumstance. It just became obsolete with the popularity of cell phones and internet communication services. In 2001, Bell South was the first phone company to exit the pay phone business.

Phone booths are frequently vandalized. It is not uncommon to see explicit writing in pen or spray paint.

As most of us know the phone booth is the place where Clark Kent changes into his famous Superman suit.

I don’t believe that Clark Kent ever used the Edwardsburg telephone booth and I don’t think it was ever stuffed with human bodies, but Edwardsburg had a very prominent telephone booth on Main Street.


Jo-Ann Boepple works at the Edwardsburg Area History Museum.

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