What a subway payphone looked like in 1932

Remember subway payphones? If any still exist today, I can’t imagine they get much use—or that they actually work. Back before mobile phones, of course, they served their purpose.

The first public telephones appeared in New York City subway stations in 1911, according to Time magazine. What that contraption looked like I wish I knew.

But you can get something of an idea of it by looking at this 1932 photo of a payphone inside something of a phone booth at the former IND station on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street.

[Photo: MCNY X2010.7.2.5359]

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18 Responses to “What a subway payphone looked like in 1932”

  1. Ty Says:

    Here’s how it works:. Pick up the receiver, bang on the side, lean in and say, “Operator, operator get me Klondike 3456.” When the operator says “That’ll be five cents please”, curse and rummage through your pockets for a nickle. Once found drop it in the slot, lean back and tip your hat back to begin your call.

  2. Bob Says:

    The Time article has a link to the 1911 Model 50A telephone manufacturer’s catalog, with photo on page 7 of the pdf: http://www.jitterbuzz.com/furn/gray_pay_catalogue.pdf

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks! Subway payphones used to rival payphones outside of bodegas as the most disgusting.

    • Zoe Says:

      So true Ephemeral (though I only recall the phones on the street & Grand Central).

      You’ve reminded me of washing my hands after a long day of being out w/ no access to bathrooms & the water running black off my hands when I finally was able to wash them (NYC pre-air pollution & lead gas laws; pre-teardown or renovation of sooty burnt out buildings; pre-widespread access to baby wipes; 70s/early 80s).

      Re. what the early phones looked like. They were wooden (medium brown & varnished for durability) w/ that cupped black Bakelite mouthpiece like you can see in the photo you’ve posted (barely see here) & the black earpiece on a straight cord (not the metal cable of later public phones).

      One of the reasons I know this is because I saw one in The Mark Twain House museum in Hartford (CT). (Please see this amazing place so full of history & humour. And take the tour for the humourous anecdotes about his relationship w/ his children & his politics; such as deliberately putting the kitchen in front of the house to shock the New England gentry on his wealthy street. His studio at the top is after a ship — after his beginnings on the river. New Yorkers without cars can take the train to New Haven & then another to Hartford & back). He put a small wooden built in phonebooth near the entry inside his house — in the foyer — for his agent/editor to be able to ring him (w/ some funny Mark Twain twist on that I’ve now forgotten) & you can still see it there.

      You can also see all the early & mid-20th & 60s (mod!) & 70s (form follows function) Bell phones on Wikipedia. (I fell down a rabbit hole there whilst looking for details on my favourite 1930s ‘ladies’ table/desk models. Inc. the silver phone that can be seen in the Fred & Ginger films & the round based small black Bakelite phone that I love).

      • Ty Says:

        To drop further down the rabbit hole is how we, here in 21st Century America, allude to a 19th century English fantasy book, regarding 20th century telephones in a New York City subway station without further explanation to all concerned parties. The magic of the interweb.

      • Zoe Says:

        Down the rabbit hole where Ephemeral teaches us about ‘mystery’* & ‘seagrophy’* & ‘Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils’*… Is that what you meant Ty

        (*Lewis Carroll ‘Alice in Wonderland’)

      • Ty Says:

        Yes, Zoe. Our language can be stretched and molded to indicate what we really mean to say about ourselves as opposed to what the individual words seem to say. “Down the rabbit hole” is a popular and positive message about the joy of discovery the internet has allowed us; original intent be damned.

        And about that phone, in that station, in that time. Supposed all conversations ever were recorded. “Honey, I’ll be late.” or Son, I’m sorry but I’ll come by next week.” What would that mouthpiece have to say about us?

      • Zoe Says:

        My local phones (Second ave near Houston / Sterling St. in still Jamaican then Prospects Heights Brooklyn / Suffolk St. & Stanton on the LES) would have heard from me “I am still calling you from a payphone after a month of moving in because the phone company said they are still having a hard time fixing the ancient decrepid phone lines leading to my apartment…” and/or “building”.

        In pre-gentrified Prospect Heights (mid/late 80s) there were still ancient wooden telephone poles at the bottoms of the gardens of the townhouses that were badly looked after by the phone company — shall we say. That was true of the train tracks there also. Surprise! Redlining was very real then there. (And still is except the colour line has now moved re. that neighbourhood).

        I don’t know that the usage of rabbit hole (internet related usage) was ever meant to signify anything *bad*. It simply means you begin looking up David Bowie’s early 70s Japanese costume designer (Kansai Yamamoto I think his name was!) only to find yourself two hours later engrossed in the clothing remnants found on Northern European bog burial bodies. To think that was a *bad* thing would be a projection 🙂

      • Ty Says:

        “Down the rabbit hole” is certainly a projection on my part. A projection into the past Where any curiosity or serendipity was looked down upon as useless and irrelevant.

  4. Fred Glazer Says:

    155th & St Nick IND station still in use, definitely not “former”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes! When I wrote former, I meant the IND part—we’ve had one city-owned subway since 1940, though IND, IRT, and BMT references survive.

  5. GhostBikeCollector Says:

    That phone was located on the mezzanine level. Notice the stairway to the platform level on the left. Those two alcoves might have been located in the now walled in portion near 153rd St. Them transit workers sure need their break/coop/rec room space.

    • Nicole Says:

      Why yes, transit workers do indeed need that space & break time. Because they’re human people, like any other employee of any other company.

      These phone booths, along with old painted directional signage have become my current subway related obsession. When ever I have a chance to look inside one of these booths; they’re usually blocked off, there’s either wires or nothing.

  6. David Lippman Says:

    I think there are still examples at the Transit Museum at Court Street

  7. Raanan Geberer Says:

    I’m a little sick and tired of people saying that pay phones are useless nowadays. What if someone forgets their cell phone or leaves it at home, or if they lose it and have to wait a few days to get a new one? Isn’t there room for human error?

    • Zoe Says:

      + 1000

      Now you would have to ask someone to borrow their phone & most of those people would probably be unwilling to hand it to you — assuming you would run off w/ it. Especially if you are a person of colour & they were not & had bias against you.

    • Punto Says:

      I don’t think you mentioned the possibility that there are living souls that, by choice or necessity, may just not have a cell phone to leave home. I can vouch for at least one of these happy few persisting in defiance of the cultural shift to dependence on 24/7 uninterrupted phone accessibility.

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