Once ubiquitous in New York City, public pay phones sat on the corner of nearly every block. But these days, they have mostly disappeared. To mark the end of an era, one of the city’s very last pay phones is now on display at a museum.
The pay phone kiosk was located in Times Square until last month, when a crane lifted it from the sidewalk and onto a truck; nearby, city officials held a ceremony to mark the occasion, according to the New York Times’ Ann Chen and Aaron Reiss. While the city had around 30,000 pay phones on record in the early 2000s, it has spent the last seven years removing them.
The Times Square pay phone “was in the heart of Midtown and represents the apex of pay phone use,” Lilly Tuttle, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, tells Artnet’s Sarah Cascone. “It was probably a real warhorse.”
The museum installed the pay phone in an exhibition called “Analog City” alongside items like typewriters, filing cabinets, slide rules and a Linotype machine. The exhibition explores how these pre-digital technologies were groundbreaking for their time, and how they helped the city thrive.
The history of the public pay telephone goes back to 1889, when the world’s first pay phone, invented by William Gray and developed by George A. Long, was installed in Hartford, Connecticut. By 1902, 81,000 pay phones were in operation across the country. In 1995, pay phones hit their peak at 2.6 million.
What caused the pay phone’s demise? The rise of mobile phones is perhaps the main reason—but it isn’t the only reason. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement couldn’t wiretap public pay phones without a search warrant, which made them particularly attractive to criminals who didn’t want their calls traced, the Atlantic’s Renée Reizman wrote in 2017. Pay phones then developed an association with crime, and cities across the country lobbied to remove them from their streets.
Now, New York City is replacing its pay phones with LinkNYC kiosks, where people can place free phone calls, connect to Wi-Fi, charge their devices, and view maps and directions. About 1,800 kiosks are active throughout the city (although the installation process hasn’t been without issue).
But while the Times Square pay phone was billed as the last in New York City, this description isn’t entirely accurate, reports NPR’s Rachel Treisman. Several private pay phones still exist throughout the city, and four phone booths still stand on the Upper West Side, thanks in part to lobbying by “self-described pay phone buff” Alan Flacks.
Flacks is not the only one passionate about pay phones; another pay phone devotee is Mark Thomas, who documents them on his website The Payphone Project.
“I hate to use the word nostalgia,” he tells the Times. “But I think people miss a period of time when a call meant something. When you planned it and you thought about it, and you took a deep breath and you put your quarter in.”
“Analog City” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through December 31