This is what I love about blogs! On my last Old School Friday post, Friday December 12th, I embedded a video of The Turtles' 1960 hit "Happy Together." One of my readers and fellow pop culture fanatic, Pjazzypar, pointed out how the lyrics of that song were also a bit of a history lesson.

There is a verse in this song that refers to making a call from a pay phone, "If I should call you up, invest a dime, and you say you belong to me and ease my mind." The line refers to the fact that, in those days, a phone call from a pay phone was ten cents, thus "invest a dime". This is also where the expression "dropping a dime" (meaning to rat someone out, call the police on them or simply to call someone) came from.

I was a teen at the time this song was released and I remember that my mother always made me keep a dime somewhere in my wallet or coin purse in case I needed to make an emergency call. Sometime in the seventies that call went up to a quarter. The next pay call evolution was being able to use a calling card and, finally, data ports for laptops began to show up at pay phone stations. Now, with the advent of cell phones, the pay phone has almost disappeared from our landscape and I wonder how many of us baby boomers have even noticed.

Once upon a time our world was peppered with phone booths and pay phones. They were something we never really saw around until we needed one. We never paid much attention to them or gave them a second thought because we always figured there would always be one around somewhere. They were so ubiquitous they were almost invisible.

Though mostly invisible and taken for granted, phone booths were a part of our culture back in those days and, through film, they have become pop culture icons. Clark Kent turned into Superman in phone booths, Bill and Ted traveled through time in a phone booth, phone booths have been used to terrorize film characters (Phone Booth), in "The Birds" a phone booth was used to escape insane killer birds - the list goes on. If you watch Dr. Who, the English version of the phone booth has even become a fun Sci-Fi pop icon called The Tardis.

It seems that pay phones are now a thing of the past. Today the cell phone is king and the phone booth has become a relic of yesterday when ten cents was all it took to connect you to the world.

Here's a little history of the pay phone. To quote Bob Dylan, "the times they are a-changing."

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  1. Hey Diva, the last time I used a payphone was back in the 90's and believe me it was no longer a dime. With my germ phobia I wonder how I ever used a pay phone to begin with ;-) Anyhow, I am glad I could be a source of inspiration. By the way, how is California treating you this time around?

  2. I miss pay phones! I'm in love with the classic red British ones and inherited a little candy tin from my mother in the shape of one. You only have to forget your cell phone once and be in need of a phone to realize that these devices really did save the day. Loved your movie references, as I can't think of a phone booth without thinking of Superman in the same beat. I hope cell phones are a metaphor for having our super powers "on us" at all times. Still, it's just not the same as the charm and adventure of finding a phone--unless the emergency is indeed dire and seconds count. Then give me my cell!

  3. Found you via PJ. This is a great topic. I was out the other day without my cell and needed to make a call....but there was no phone booth anywhere to be found. I realized I hadn't seen a phone booth in years in my area!!!

    I remember when calls were a dime too....those were the days :)

  4. Barbara - it's funny, I've had a cell phone since the early 80s and never missed pay phone, but Pjazzy got me to thinking - always a dangerous thing, lol.

  5. Pjazzy - I really am happy cell phones exist, honestly every time I needed to use a pay phone it was either vandalized and useless or I didn't have the damn dime/quarter/card needed!

    Joyce - I love the British phone booths, so much more charming than ours were - I bet I'd love that candy tin of yours!

  6. I should point out that Doctor Who actually pre-dates all of the other examples, starting in 1963...

    In Australia all the pay-phones were being slowly removed during the late 1990s, until Telstra realised they were perfect as base-units for their wireless internet coverage. So now they have some techno-wizzery in them to allow exorbitantly expensive wifi connection, and the phone is there as a bonus.

    They're also running a really odd poster campaign that basically says "run out of credit on your phone? use ours!" which turns around the previous thought of mobile (cell) phones as convenient and pay phones as inconvenient...

    John (The Outland Institute)

  7. John- The original Dr. Who broadcasts and the movie The Birds both premiered in '63 but the short story by Daphne du Maurier was written in '52, published in a collection called The Apple Tree but I think The Tardis outranks the use of the phone booth as a bird bomb shelter, lol.

    I'd love to see one of those posters offering free credit use of phones! Boy, has Ma Bell (remember when we called the phone company that) changed her ways?

  8. Excellent post! The next time I am out, I will try to remember to consciously look for a pay phone. It seems like the ones I last remember seeing were victims of vandalism. Because of the cell phone and maintenance, I doubt if it's worth the trouble for the phone company to keep them around.

    When I think of the evolution of the pay phone, I am reminded of the scene in the 1978 movie "Superman" when Clark Kent was planning on changing in a phone booth. He had to come up with another plan because the pay phone he came across was the open-kiosk style.

  9. Malcolm - I had forgotten that scene in Superman and it was a great film commentary on changing times wasn't it?

    Thanks for reminding me - that scene was up there with Indiana Jones just shooting that guy with the big curved sword instead of indulging in sword play!

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