This 1989 film was originally made as part of a small, traveling exhibition created by AT&T on the history of the payphone, 100 years after its conception. The exhibition debuted at AT&T’s Infoquest Center in New York City.
Invented by William Gray in 1889, the payphone went almost ten years before it became a coin-op model. Before that, they were on an honor system. For most of the 20th century, payphones were an essential part of a connected society. At their peak there were over 2.5 million of them in the United States.
Phone booths proliferated from the 1920s to 1970s, with the designs changing from elaborate wooden booths to the classic glass-and-aluminum. While the booths are now quite rare, the phones themselves are becoming more so. Once cellphones proliferated, most large telecom companies (including AT&T) jettisoned their payphone business arms during the 2000s. The vast majority remaining are owned by small, local vendors.
The best — and most entertaining — website that tracks the de-evolution of payphones and phone booths is The Payphone Project, which has been tracking the decline of those cultural icons since 1995.
Footage courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ