Vintage payphones: When phone booths, walk-up & drive-up public telephones were everywhere

Vintage payphones

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Vintage payphones & phone booths: The most popular in the world (1958)

By James H Winchester, Central Press Association – The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey) December 23, 1958

New York — At the east end of New York City’s Grand Central terminal’s upper-level rotunda, between a newsreel theater and a toyshop, stand three rows of coin-operated telephones.

Each booth is numbered. At the open end of the south row is Booth No. 17. It is the busiest pay phone in the United States, which almost automatically makes it the most used booth in the world.

“For years,” says a telephone company spokesman, “the legend has existed that the busiest phone in town was one located in a Times Square drugstore.

Busiest pay phone in the US in 1958

“OUR ENGINEERS have established that pay booths in Grand Central terminal are used more often than any other group in the city. Of the Grand Central locations, Booth No. 17 is the busiest of the lot. It’s just never empty.

“A careful check shows that more than 250 persons use this booth every day. That works out to one call nearly every five minutes, around the clock.”

Coin-operated telephones and telephone booths have been an integral part of the American scene since the first one — a cumbersome affair called an “automatic pay station,” complete with slots for nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and “cartwheel” silver dollars — was installed in New York City’s Barclay street ferry- house in 1890.

Today, in New York City alone some 3,500,000 calls are placed daily through 60,000 coin-operated public telephones.

A smoking man at the airport with a payphone on the wall (1964)
A smoking man at the airport with a payphone on the wall (1964)

ALTHOUGH they don’t encourage it, telephone companies, if pressed, will install a booth right in your own apartment. In New York City, there are 30 or 40 such individual installations.

Phone companies, always on the alert for new locations, have even installed booths aboard several of the larger transatlantic liners. When the ships dock, lines are run ashore and hooked to permanent connections on the pier.

Petty racketeers who use slugs or plug up the slots of pay phones with paper napkins to prevent coins from falling back into the return slot are a nuisance, more than a problem, say telephone company detectives, the ratio of loss in New York City being less than one-fifth of one percent of total revenues.

Vintage rotary dial payphone coin slots 1962

TWO OF the nation’s most notorious gang-style murders, however, were committed in telephone booths: The Vincent (Mad Dog) Coll shooting a number of years ago and the more recent Luyre slaying in New York City’s crowded garment-manufacturing district.

Collectors, making their round to pick up coin boxes, have on occasion found bodies of corpses, persons who died of natural causes, in booths. Incidentally, these collectors never see the color of the nickels, dimes and quarters.

The money drops into a burglar-proof, steel box, which is sealed. This box is removed and a new one inserted. The sealed box is then taken to a district office before being opened.

ALTHOUGH gold coins have been illegal for a long time, phone companies still get hundreds of frantic calls a year from men or women who have dropped gold pieces in the phone slots by mistake. $5 gold piece is the size of a nickel; a $242 gold piece is the size of a dime.

Upon receipt of such calls, the companies usually trot a man right over to retrieve the coin. “It’s good public relations,” they say. “We give them back their gold piece and we’ve made a friend for life.”

Payphone with secretary - Vintage typewriter ad from 1969
Vintage Remington typewriter ad, seen in an old phone booth (1969)

THE PHONE people, though, take a less benevolent attitude toward those who use their booths for offices. They don’t mind a man who has his office in his hat making all the calls he wants out of any of their booths. His dime is as good as that of the next man.

However, they draw the line when someone prints up cards with a phone booth number on it and starts receiving all his incoming calls free of charge.

A classic example along this line concerned a lawyer, a real hustler, who worked out of New York City’s Penn Station. He kept a portable typewriter and all his files in three dime lockers situated next to a bank of pay phones. His business card listed three telephone booth numbers. “He was a real operator,” says a phone company investigator. “We almost hated to put him out of business.”

Today’s deluxe telephone booths, equipped with armed swivel chairs, writing shelves, pads and pencils, automatic electric fans and electric lights, are a far cry from the first early attempts to make a successful coin-telephone.

An “automatic pay station” was the goal of inventors almost from the day Alexander Graham Bell took out his first patent.

Vintage street payphone at night in 1956
Outdoor roadside phonebooth with payphone (1956)

MOST OF THESE early attempts to provide public pay stations made the telephone or some part of it inaccessible to use until unlocked by deposit of a coin. For example, the coin unlocked the crank with which the user signaled the operator; or it unlocked a sliding door in front of the mouthpiece, or the entire telephone was enclosed in a box.

One inventor reversed the usual order: The telephone was located in a booth having a door which locked behind the user when he stepped inside. After he had made his call, he could escape only by depositing a coin in the door lock!

Vintage rotary dial payphone 1964

Just a dime for a call (1978)

1978 - Pay phone

Actress Susan Dey with mall payphones (1970)

The Partridge Family actress and another model in an ad for Jonathan Logan, vintage fashion designer

phone booth

Outdoor phones are found in the likeliest places (1963)

And that, in a nutshell, is why people like outdoor public telephones. They’re convenient. They’re available — when and where foiks need them.

Because they’re located where the people are, they attract nickels, dimes and quarters that can add up to a sizeable sum in the course of a year.

When the outdoor phones are on municipal property, this means extra dividends for the city treasury without a single cent of extra taxes. It isn’t often that a public service can be a profit-making project as well for the community, is it?

It’s worth investigating. Call your local Bell Telephone Business Office. Ask for a Communications Consultant. He will survey your municipality and design a public telephone plan to meet the city’s specific needs.

Outdoor payphones in 1963

This was the first telephone booth… (1961)

…but today’s serve you better by far, wherever you are!

It was “invented” in 1877. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A Watson had to shout into the primitive telephone on intercity tests. This annoyed their Boston landlady.

Then Watson had an idea. One night he rolled some blankets into a loose tunnel, and crawled in with his telephone. It was dark, it was hot, but it worked. While Watson bellowed, the landlady slept serenely!

telephone-booths-1961 (1)

The Airlight Booth (1961)

Watson’s woolly cave has grown into this modern glass-and-aluminum booth, used indoors or out. At night, it’s a reassuring lighthouse along city streets and major highways. When you see it, you know that service and protection are at hand.

telephone-booths-1961 (2)

The walk-up phone: Payphone (1961)

As busy Americans make more and more calls, the Bell System makes service even more convenient. This newest public phone, called the Walk-Up, saves time and steps for everybody. You’ll find it as convenient as the corner mailbox.

telephone-booths-1961 (3)

Spring's a-ringin' with convenient new phones in colorful tones! (1962)

Vintage rotary dial payphone from the 1960s

The drive-up phone: Phone from car (1961)

Like the drive-in movies and drive-in bank, the Drive-Up Phone is a natural for a nation on wheels. Forget something? Late for a date? Need room reservations miles ahead? Just pull off the road and call — as you would on your own phone.

telephone-booths-1961 (4)

Vintage roadside phone booths: Like a lighthouse on the highway (1959)

A thoughtful husband, hurrying home, phones to reassure his wife.

A young family calls ahead to make reservations for the night.

A vacationing couple enjoys a telephone visit with old friends off their route.

A sputtering car coasts to a stop and two grateful women phone for road service.

Lighted outdoor telephone booths are multiplying along America’s highways. They and half a million other public telephones — in stores, stations, hotels, motels, airports and other places — make telephone service more useful and convenient day or night.

Public telephones get things done wherever you are. They 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.

1959 Vintage pay phonebooth on the highway

Vintage payphone and fashion (1959)

Vintage payphone and fashion from 1959

Pay phones & long distance calls (1955)

Pay phone 1955 Long distance calls

Payphone repair from 1954

Payphone repair from 1954

1987's hottest TVs, VCRs, stereos, cellular phones & more

Home… on a 3-minute pass (1951)

… and the things we make help get them there

Whether making home seem closer, or speeding production, or coordinating defense — what a vast network of Bell telephone equipment it takes to bring people together 145 million times a day! As manifacturing unit of the Bell System, Western Electric makes the good, dependable equipment that does the job.

Dec 17, 1951 payphones

Phone booths in 1981

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. Anyone “of a certain age” can tell you some good pay phone/phone booth stories. As recently as the late 1990s, pay phones were everywhere. You could count on every gas station, convenience store and shopping center having at least one public phone. I remember pulling over on a highway rest stop to use the phone to call my boss that I’d be late to work because of a traffic jam. I also remember attending professional conferences when, at the end of each session, everyone would scurry to the venue’s pay phones to call and check their messages. Then, seemingly overnight, pay phones and phone booths disappeared, except for some places where they are still required by law (police stations, transit stations, hospitals, etc.).

  2. In the 70 & 80s I was a contractor for SWB in Oklahoma. I would clean an repair/upgrade booths and drive up or walk up pedestals. This day and age it would have been a nightmare with Covid, good money for me for either cleaning , sanitizing or completely removing.. There were some that were hardly ever dirty from use, then some you absolutely knew you’d better have lights and replacement glass every month. Those few it some times looked like someone lived in or used as personal restroom. NASTY! NASTY! I would find feminine napkins, used condoms, needles, underwear, you name it I found it…

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.