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An Ode to the U.K.'s Red Phone Boxes

Before cell phones, these booths were places for making collect calls and collective memories.

Image Olivia Harris/Reuters
Olivia Harris/Reuters

Even if you have never set foot in the United Kingdom, you know what the red telephone box looks like.

It swings from keychains in miniature form; it decorates throw pillows and by-the-month planners. So commodified has the red phone box become that it’s hard to remember it once served a purpose beyond backdropping tourists’ photos.

First introduced in 1924, red General Post Office boxes once numbered 73,000 across the U.K.; now there are only 11,000 left. They were the site of countless calls, but also, as GuardianWitness and the performance group Permanently Visible have set out to prove, they were repositories of a collective memory growing fainter as our dependence on new technology strengthens.

As part of the Camden People’s Theater’s program Whose London is it Anyway?, Permanently Visible staged an interactive event this past weekend, inviting Londoners to stop by a phone box in front of the St. Pancras Hotel and share their memories of pre-mobile days. In tandem, The Guardian has put out a call for recollections on their site, and also through Twitter.

Some submissions take the form of simple photos: a call box on the side of a country road, looking as though it was dropped there from a different time, a different landscape.  

The memories evoke what one reader calls “a bygone era.” They write:

When I was at uni, I lived in the middle of nowhere...there was a phone box a couple of miles away where you could talk for as long as you liked for 10p. I used to call my mother and talk for hours, often in the freezing cold (this was Scotland). I loved Uni, in many ways the best years of my life, loads of friends and things to do, but she and I were close and it was great to share some of it. It seems lunatic now.

The stories surfacing throughout London as a result of this initiative mirror and play into a global effort to preserve times past. The New York Public Library’s Oral History Project is collecting video footage, neighborhood by neighborhood, from the residents who have witnessed them change. In December, the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco showcased the ongoing work of photographers Yuliya Levit and Marina Eybelman, whose Speak Memory Project documents a generation of World War II survivors through images and narrative.

The phone booths nudged along all sorts of relationships. For some, romantic liaisons would have faltered without them. One man remembers how:

In the late seventies, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were at different universities across London so every evening at 7:30 we'd go to the box at the end of the road and ring each other, hoping they weren't occupied at either end. The deal was we'd keep trying for half an hour before going home. Most nights it worked so we got to speak to each other every day. We kept it up for two years before we got married. It was fun having something to look forward to every evening even though most of our friends thought we were nuts!

In the over 90 years since their introduction, the phone boxes have also witnessed the nation and its inhabitants change. For immigrants arriving in the U.K., they were vital points of connection:

We came to England as a family in the period [from 1961 to 1968]. Like many households we did not have a phone till ‘72.

Not many of our fellow immigrants had phone at home so we would use a phone box at top of our street on Barton Lane (Eccles) to keep in touch.

My memories of using that red box revolves around phoning my secondary school to get my O-Level results and more importantly phoning Hope Hospital using the old penny to find out the birth of my nephew Saeed. He is the first...born of my U.K. clan. We now are many.

Nowadays, with their initial function co-opted by cell phones, they’re defunct—but not as cultural objects. A 2006 competition organized by the Design Museum and BBC Television placed the red phone box in the top 10 of the British public’s favorite design icons; two years later, British Telecom introduced an “Adopt a Kiosk” scheme to staunch the flow of phone-booth disappearances. Through donations, communities can keep their local phone boxes standing; they have been converted into defibrillation stations, mini libraries, and, ironically, cell-phone charging stations.

Failing any of those options, they are also excellent spots to enjoy a sugary treat on a hot day. “Telephone boxes are also a good place to eat ice cream cones,” one woman’s kids report.

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