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Calling all collectors: Vintage phone booths a hot item

Feb. 24, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Alexander Graham Bell invented his version of the telephone in 1877, and by 1881 there were more than 130,000 telephones in homes across America. Along with the explosion of telephones came telephone booths in 1891.

Many a drug store or corner grocery had a telephone booth and for a time they held a major place in our culture. For a mere coin one could make a call in relative privacy. Sometimes the booth served as an experiment site for adolescents trying to see how many bodies they could get inside.

With the advent of the cell phone these convenient structures began to decline in popularity. What one could easily find on every street corner in 1990 has now fallen by the wayside. Many are still serving the public but those that have been retired are popping up in auctions, antique shops and on eBay.

Who would have thought that a wooden oak box with glass inserts could sell for several thousand dollars. Granted it was probably in perfect condition with a pay phone intact. What is amazing is that these booths were in service just 20 years ago and are now being resold for such prices.

Even more expensive are the American booth's red iron cousins that served the British Isles. They have been known to sell for more than $8,000. Condition is everything and prices are reflective, so not all booths reach such heights and metal booths sell for much less.

All manner of uses such as a shower, an outdoor toilet and would you believe an aquarium have evolved from the simple booths. In Brazil artists are painting their renditions with wild colors and interesting images such as a brain. In New York some have been turned into Wi-Fi hotspots, and in England many are being used for village book exchanges. In Austria they are used as charging stations for electric cars. One of the more interesting conversions was turning the old booth into a one-person home complete with fold out bed, sink and radio. Bathroom facilities were sadly lacking, as was the Superman costume.

One may find telephone booths selling online, at a local shop or at an auction. What is most fascinating is what folks tend to do with them after the purchase. That they are being recycled to fit into today's world is a wonderful testament to humankind's creativity and imagination. What fun.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.