Those Disappearing Telephone Booths

As one of the few people on earth who hasn’t yet embraced the smart phone fad, I have had cause to miss the conveniently located but humble telephone booths that used to dot our towns, shopping centers, gas stations, and even country bus stops. I saw recently that Arkansas has listed one of its last working telephone booths on the National Register of Historic Places. Installed around 1960, according to the National Register nomination, the Prairie Grove Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth is

an excellent example of the Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth developed in the mid-1950s. When the Airlight Telephone Booth was introduced c.1954, advertisements touted it as ‘something new in telephone booths.’ Its aluminum construction was an improvement over previous booths, and the glass around it, along with the overhead light, made the Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth well-lighted and very comfortable to use. . . .

The previous wooden telephone booths were designed for indoor use, so the AOTB represented an evolution in telephone booth design in order to allow it to function better in more varied environments. Advertisements for the Airlight booth also touted the ‘tip-up directories’ that are in ‘easy reach’ and the ‘ample shelf for packages and handbags,’ both of which are present in the Prairie Grove booth.

Ralph S. Wilcox, National Register & Survey Coordinator
Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

The only telephone booth I can think of still hanging around in Mississippi is the red British type booth in downtown Jackson on Congress Street across from the Governor’s Mansion. I don’t know what brought that booth to Mississippi, but it hasn’t been a working telephone booth for as long as I’ve known it, and maybe it never was?

The earliest I’ve found mention of outdoor telephone booths in Mississippi is in 1954 (no coincidence, since the AOTB was introduced around then), with this Clarion-Ledger article saying that no-way, no-how would phone booths mar the appearance of Capitol Street.

Clarion-Ledger, December 9, 1954, p. 1

By 1968, the City Council had changed its tune on phone booths, even on Capitol Street, touting them as not just desirable for public convenience and safety but also as revenue-generators for the city.

More Downtown Telephone Booths To Be Installed

The installation of 10 additional public telephone booths in downtown Jackson has been approved by the City Council.

The first booth was installed on a trial basis last Aug. 29, and its success has inspired the addition of more booths.

Ralph Atkinson, public telephone coordinator for Mississippi, told the council that income so far from the booth indicated a yearly revenue to the city of $200 from the single booth now in operation on the northeast corner of Capitol and Lamar.

He also told the council that the City of Birmingham collects a little more than $30,000 in commissions from the approximately 265 public telephones on the streets of that city.

The city receives a 15 per cent commission on the telephones paid monthly. The Southern Bell Telephone Co. installs and maintains the public telephone booths.

Atkinson said that after the 10 additional booths were installed downtown that more booths would be added as needed in other areas of the city.

The 10 booths are to be located the the following places: at Kennington’s on Capitol Street, at the U.S. Post Office on Capitol Street, at King Distributors on Farish Street just north of Capitol, in the middle of the block of Farish just north of Capitol on the west side, at Amite and Farish by Ferguson Furniture Co., at Amite and North State Street by a Texaco service station, on the northeast corner of Farish and Hamilton, on Capitol Street directly across from Woolworth’s, and at the Belmont Cafe on Capitol Street.

Atkinson said orders for the booths were being issued Wednesday and that he hopes they would be installed within a month, some of them perhaps within two weeks.

The booths on Farish will be the walk up, shelter type, which takes up less space and are designed for narrow streets.

Atkinson said he had heard nothing but favorable comments about the trial booth on the Parisian.

He said the booths provide both convenience and safety to the public around the clock, giving people a place to make a telephone call after the stores are closed.

Atkinson also said it gave the city an additional source of revenue without the expenditure of money or levying of a tax.

The public telephone booths are being installed in all sections of Mississippi this year, he states.

Clarion-Ledger, January 25, 1968, p. B6

The mention of all those Farish Street booths gave me an idea to look at the photos included in the Farish Street Historic District nomination from 1979, and sure enough, here is a scene from the corner of Farish and Oakley at the Crystal Palace showing what appears to be a real live Airlight Outdoor Telephone Booth. Today, the Palace is still there with a new facade, but the phone booth, bless its heart, has been replaced with a trash receptacle.

The saddest thing about the disappearing phone booth is that there is even now a whole generation of young people who don’t understand one of my favorite snarky comebacks: “Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.”

Maybe you’ve had a sighting of a Mississippi telephone booth still standing somewhere forlornly, waiting for someone to call someone who cares. If so, let us know where it is!



Categories: Architectural Research, Jackson, Lost Mississippi, Recent Past

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12 replies

  1. The British phone booth on the Oxford Square is still there. It’s one of the most popular photo ops in Oxford. According to this Oxford Eagle article from last year, it is still functional.

    http://m.oxfordeagle.com/2016/03/27/phone-booth-inspires-in-oxford/

    Like

  2. The red phone booth was imported from England and installed by Stuart Irby who admired them during his visits to England.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My daughter’s family found a red one on vacation in the Luray Caverns area in Virginia. My 2 1/2 year old grandson knew exactly what to do with that phone…walked into the booth and held the receiver up to his ear, just like he’d been chatting on the phone and forgot to say goodbye. It is sad that most children will never know the pleasure of seeing these phone booths dot the landscape of our towns much less know what to do with a pay phone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is so interesting! I had never thought about how all those phone booths got there. I thought the phone company just stuck them wherever they had a mind to or that some businesses probably requested they be placed there. Who knew rent would be involved? Commerce! Capitalism!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Who in their right mind would spend a dime on a telephone call in the Jackson of the 1950’s? Walk up to the ticket sellers at the Lamar or the Paramount and say: “Would you dial 6-4059?” and she would stick the phone through the semicircular glass opening and you’d say: “Mama, I’ll be home before dark.” It was that simple.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would much rather see outdated phone booths on Capitol Street than those ridiculous traffic circlets!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I, too, do not have a smart phone and don’t plan to get one any time soon if I have the choice. It’s pure economics for me. So, I have wondered about the demise of phone booths. Thanks for this post. Interesting!

    Like

  8. The National Genealogical Society’s blog, http://upfront.ngsgenealogy.org/ mentioned this blog post!

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. Those Disappearing Telephone Booths — Preservation in Mississippi – Attic Sister

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