The Telephone Booth

One square metre connecting the world

In the 20th century, telephone booths enable many people to use the public telephone network of the post office. Therefore, they are a great help in need and an enrichment in everyday life: they can be used to contact distant friends, arrange doctor's appointments or obtain information from the local authorities. But for those using them, the boxes are also associated with annoyance: Not only happy telephone conversations, but also long queues, stench and destroyed boxes are part of the memory.

Fernsprechzelle (um 1915) by unbekanntMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Initially indoors

The first booths go into service in 1881 with the first city telephone networks in Germany: the soundproofed, wooden boxes are installed in stock exchanges and post offices. Around 1900, restaurants, hotels and railway stations are added, enabling even more people to make calls.

Kassiereinrichtung für öffentliche Sprechstellen (Verwendung ab 1899) by Hersteller: Mix & Genest AG Telephon- und TelegraphenwerkeMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Self-payment

With the invention of the self-cashier in 1899, telephoning becomes independent of counter opening hours. Payments can be made directly at the cash machine. Indoor telephone booths are now extended by iron outdoor telephone boxes in public spaces.

Fernsprechhäuschen von Quante (1934) by Deutsche Reichspost, Telegraphenbauamt BerlinMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Colourful iron works of art

In the 1920s, telephone boxes establishe themselves across the country. They are often manufactured by regional companies and initially resemble kiosks or pavilions.

Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 28 Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 28 (1928) by unbekanntMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Bright booths

From the beginning, telephone booths have glass walls and are clearly viewable from the outside for security reasons. The observation from the outside is intended to prevent criminal or improper use.

Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 28 Innenansicht (ab 1928) by unbekanntMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Keep it short!

The public telephones can hardly cope with the high demand, especially in busy places or in the evening when telephoning is cheaper. Signs therefore warn to be considerate of those waiting.

Fotografie "Passanten in einer Warteschlange vor einem Fernsprechhäuschen der Deutschen Reichspost" (1927) by Hersteller: Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst (ADN) (1946 - 1992)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Will it take much longer?

Nevertheless, queues in front of telephone booths are not unusual. People queue for a long time to make a phone call to a business partner or an acquaintance. Especially in times of crisis, public telephones are important in order to contact relatives and friends.

Modell des ersten genormten Fernsprechhäuschens (1991) by Hersteller: Ihlenfeldt & Berkefeld KGMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

They were easier to find in standardised form

To make them more recognisable in the streets, the post office standardises telephone booths in 1932: they now have a uniform base and colour scheme. The logo with the red hand holding a receiver also indicates the function of the booth.

Erstes Standard-Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 32 (ab 1932) by unbekanntMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Aligned in red

The National Socialists change the colour of the post office to red. The telephone boxes are repainted accordingly: They are given a propagandistic coating in red with white accents and a black base.

Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 55 (ab 1955) by Hersteller: Quante AGMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Yellow colour and network expansion in the FRG and GDR

After 1946, booths that survived the destruction of the war are painted in the familiar yellow colour. The telephone network is expanded in both areas, yet the public network remains important: in 1963, only 14 per cent of households in West Germany have a telephone.

Fotografie "Frau beim Telefonieren in einem Fernsprechhäuschen der Deutschen Post der DDR“ (1964) by Fotograf: Günter TlusteMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Organising everyday life in heat and frost

Telephone booths are not a place to spend time in a cosy atmosphere. Without seating, they are functionally equipped for making phone calls, and protect against rain and wind. However, the glass walls can make them hot and stuffy in summer and freezing cold in winter.

Fotografie "Fernsprechhäuschen mit öffentlichem Münzfernsprecher und stummen Postamt" (1964) by Hersteller: ZeitbildMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Instead of going to the office

The public telephone boxes are also important as they are used for business calls, everyday organisation and a quick response to advertisements. An inbuilt "silent post office" also makes it possible to buy stamps or postcards and drop off letters.

Fotografie "Beschädigtes Fernsprechhäuschen wird abgesichert" (um 1970) by Hersteller: Deutsche BundespostMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Out of service

To the annoyance of the post office and its customers, damaged telephone boxes are not uncommon. Missing pages in telephone directories, dirty handsets or broken machines are sometimes preventing the use.

Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 79 der Deutschen Post der DDR mit Münzfernsprecher 69 (ab 1979) by unbekanntMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Less landlines, more important booths

In the GDR, network expansion progresses slowly and telephones remain in short supply. The new telephone boxes therefore remain very important. Spontaneous visits and personal conversations are as a result more common than in the FRG.

Fotografie "Fernsprechhäuschen der Deutschen Post der DDR im Potsdamer Neubaugebiet "Am Schlaatz"" (um 1985) by Fotograf: Harri BachMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

New and without connection

The fact that a telephone connection is not the standard is also evident in the new housing estates of the 1970s in East and West Germany. Here, the popular booths make it possible to organise everyday life and stay in touch with friends and families who are suddenly far away.

Fernsprechhäuschen FeH 78 mit Münzfernsprecher 20 (ab 1978) by Hersteller: Süd-Böhl (gegr. 1948)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

From steel to polyester resin

In 1978, the appearance of telephone boxes changes: the steel constructions are slowly being replaced in West Germany by models made of glass-fibre reinforced polyester resin. The material and shape with the rounded corners are easier to maintain than their steel predecessors.

Notrufmelder für Fernsprechhäuschen (ab 1970) by Hersteller: Deutsche Telephonwerke und Kabelindustrie AG [DeTeWe] (1922 - 1990)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Quick help

Telephone booths promise quick help in an emergency. From 1970, the post office decouples the emergency call function from the payphone. Emergency call indicators make it possible to call the police or fire brigade quickly and free of charge.

Better usability, worse protection

Telephone covers provide less protection from wind and weather. However, they also allow people in wheelchairs to use public telephones. On some models, the coin-operated units are positioned lower.

Fotografie "Rollstuhlfahrer telefoniert an einem Münzfernsprecher in einer Telefonhaube", Hersteller: Deutsche Bundespost, Fernmeldetechnisches Zentralamt Darmstadt, 1975, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Fotografie „Fernsprechhäuschen TelH 78 und Telefonhaube TelHb 82 im Stadtgebiet von Berlin“, 1997, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Fernsprechhäuschen für historische Altstädte FeH 90 SH (ab 1989) by Hersteller: Wilhelm Quante Fernmeldetechnik GmbHMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Adaptation to the cityscape

In order to be easily recognisable, the yellow houses need to stand out. At the same time, they should not unnecessarily disrupt the cityscape. Special models are therefore available for historic city centres or rural areas that pick up on half-timbered structures.

Fernsprechhäuschens für moderne Städte TelH 90 S (ab 1988) by Hersteller: Stewing Kunststoffbetrieb GmbHMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

There are also variations for modern urban spaces.

Telefonhäuschen TelH 90 mit Kartentelefon (1993) by Hersteller: W. Kücke & Co Fernmeldetechnik GmbHMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

New houses in East and West Germany

The telephone boxes experience their last heyday around 1990 in the new federal states. They are hastily installed to give as many people as possible access to the telephone network. From 1992, the boxes are painted in the new Telekom colours grey, white and magenta.

Telefonsäule mit Multipayment-Telefon (Ab 2001) by Betreiber: Deutsche Telekom AGMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

The box becomes a pillar

The spread of mobile phones from the 1990s onwards robs the telephone box of its purpose. Telephoning on the move becomes available to everyone. In many places, telephone boxes are replaced by telephone stations. The slim columns are much cheaper to buy and operate.

The end of an era

On 21 November 2022, the legislator releases Deutsche Telekom AG from its obligation to provide a telephone service. The telephone booth is no longer necessary, landlines and mobile phones are widely available. The last payphones are switched off in 2022 and card telephones in January 2023.

Fotografie "Lesende vor einem zum Bücherschrank umgebauten Telefonhäuschen" (2014) by Fotograf: Ina SteinerMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

And yet still here

Today, telephone booths are being repurposed. They are being used as bookcases or car charging stations in public spaces or as phone cabins in offices. In working order, they can only be found in museums, where they remind us of unpleasant smells but great conversations.

Credits: Story

" The Telephone Booth. One square metre connection to the world "

A virtual exhibition by the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

Curator: Swenja Hoschek


Literatur:
Behme, Rolf; Klemp, Klaus; Kohnen, Barbara; Ruprecht, Uwe (Hrsg.): Telefonzelle. Flüchtige Orte der Worte, Dortmund 1998.

Bernhardt, Manfred: Das Telefonhäuschen…, in: Archiv für deutsche Postgeschichte, 1994, H. 2, S. 57-61.

Flessner, Bernd: Vom Pavillon zum Basistelefon. Eine kurze Kulturgeschichte des Telefonhäuschens, in: Das Archiv. Magazin für Post- und Telekommunikationsgeschichte, 2007, H. 1, S. 12-19.

Nägele, Lioba: Das Telefonhäuschen – ein Quadratmeter Privatsphäre im öffentlichen Raum, in: Restaurator im Handwerk, 2019, H. 2, S.39-43.

Schörle, Eckart: Eine kleine Geschichte der Telefonzelle, Nagold 2019.

Credits: All media
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