When I was an adolescent in the early 1960's, my mother wouldn't let me leave the neighborhood without a dime in my pocket (in case I had to make an emergency phone call). Consider for a moment the infrastructure that had to be in place in order for me to use that emergency dime: there had to be a pay phone nearby, with a phone book attached (emergency 911 didn't exist nationally until 1967). Providing those basics required a well-funded phone company, thousands of miles of cabling, plus maintenance and administrative personnel. Back then, I didn't give a moment's thought as to how pay phones happened to be at almost every grocery store, drug store, gas station, shopping center, or bus station. They were just there; I took them for granted.
Contrast that to the experience of William Gray, a Hartford, Connecticut machinist, about one hundred years earlier: Gray's wife had become seriously ill, and he needed to phone a doctor. In 1888 public telephones were non-existent, and the closest private phone was in a nearby factory. It took much persuasion before the foreman allowed Gray to use their only phone.
Because of that incident, Gray was inspired to use his mechanical skills to invent a public pay telephone. In 1889 Gray installed the first pay-station telephone in a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a "post-pay" phone, in which coins were deposited into a single slot after a call was made (upon the instructions of the operator). The coins would sort according to size on the interior of the phone. A problem with Gray's first coin-drop phone was that an operator had no idea when a call was actually fully paid for; they couldn't hear the coins drop. A subsequent coin-drop mechanism was invented by Gray which rang a bell for each coin inserted. Based on his 1891 patent for this new device, Gray formed the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company. Gray phone boxes were set up on street posts, interior cabinets (similar to a floor clock) and as desk models. "Pre-pay" telephones debuted in Chicago in 1898. The Gray Company also pioneered the three-coin-slot pay phones that became standard in the second half of the 20th Century.
By 1902, there were 81,000 pay phones in the United States. By 1960, the Bell system had installed one million public pay phones. By 1998, there were over 2.6 million pay phones in use in the U.S. In the late 1980s cell phones began to penetrate the North American market. Within a decade, cell phones were owned by a majority of the adult population. In 2001, Bell South announced that it would stop pursuing the pay phone business due to competition from cell phones. Other regional phone companies soon followed suit. Today there are fewer than 100,000 pay phones in the U.S., about the 1906 level.
Consequently, there are a lot of abandoned pay phones around, and collectors can choose from a wide variety at reasonably low prices. Technology has been upgraded repeatedly over the last 125 years, and the older a technology the more desirable it is to collect. Like all other antiques and collectibles, prices are subject to supply, demand, and condition. As of this writing there are ten antique pay phones listed for sale on eBay alone, with asking prices ranging from $150 USD to $1,499 USD. eBay sales of antique payphones in the last thirty days show twenty-six "phone only" sales ranging from $85 USD to $590 USD and two phones-plus-wooden-booth sales of around $1200 USD each.
It's not known how many antique telephone collectors exist, but the largest collector's club, the Antique Telephone Collectors Association (ATCA) boasts over 1,000 members. There is also an Australian club, and an international club that has a Yahoo discussion group named "Singing Wires" that has a registered membership of 1,054. None of these groups issue specific guidelines on how to begin collecting antique pay phones but their forum discussions offer the following tips:
- Study online catalogs, museum displays, and books to learn about the various manufacturers and their production and technology timelines. Recommended books include "100 Years of Bell Telephones" by Richard Mountjoy and "Telephones: Antique to Modern" by Kate Dooner.
- Focus on one brand or style. A good collection has a consistent theme; otherwise, it's just an accumulation of phones.
- Join a collector's group. Group members are usually very helpful to newcomers.
As you begin your search for phones, keep the following questions in mind:
- Does it work? "Working condition" is important to some collectors, and not very important to others. A consistent theme in the forums is that authentic parts should be used to restore phones. Authentically restored phones are worth more than phones restored using more modern parts.
- Is it genuine? Reproductions abound; antique phone styles are popular additions to interior decor.
- Is it complete? If there are obviously missing parts (receiver, cord, coin box, etc.) don't buy the phone unless you know you can get original replacement parts (unless there is demand for the phone's remaining parts). Public pay phones were sometimes abused and required frequent maintenance. It was not unusual for phones that were in use for many years to have had parts replaced to keep them in service. Even if a phone is authentic, it may have replacement parts that were not used in the original phone.
- What condition is it in? Is the color sun-bleached or faded? Is the Bakelite, plastic, or wooden case cracked or chipped? Is the paint scraped? Cosmetic damage can reduce the value of an old phone by up to 90%.
- How rare is it? Check an auction-price aggregator such as WorthPoint.com to determine how many phones of a particular model have been offered for sale in the past few years. Also, check the above mentioned forums to see if there is demand for a particular phone. Authenticity, rarity, condition and completeness combine to maximize the value of an antique pay phone.
Communications technology is moving along at such a rapid pace that soon all 20th Century telephone technology will be obsolete (and therefore collectible). Wires, insulators, switchboards, parts, repair manuals, advertising, and "everything telephone" will be desirable collectibles in the 21st Century. There is now a window of opportunity for focused collectors to curate a fabulous collection.