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When visiting London, no trip is complete without a photo of three things: a black cab, a double-decker bus, and, of course, the famous red phone box. In this article, we will look at the phone box’s history, the reasons behind its lasting popularity, and some of its more surprising contemporary uses.
Text by: Joe McKillop      Country: England

n 1920 the United Kingdom Post Office introduced the first standard public phone box. Produced in concrete and known as K1 (Kiosk No.1), the design varied in a number of ways from the phone boxes we are familiar with today. The K1 was mostly white, with bright red window panels, and the shape of its roof was much more angular. This early version of the phone box was widely criticised, and nowadays very few examples remain. The London Metropolitan Boroughs rejected the unpopular K1, and in 1924 a competition was held to design a new version for use on the streets of London.

The eventual winner was the design submitted by Giles Gilbert Scott (later Sir Giles Gilbert Scott), resulting in the phone box we know and love today. Although the Post Office used Scott’s winning design, they made one crucial change: they decided to paint it red in order to make it easy to spot – Scott had suggested silver, with a green and blue interior!

From 1926, Sir Giles’ creation was introduced around London and, in a time when very few people had phones in their houses and decades before mobile phones had been invented, these phone boxes quickly became essential. But as well as being a necessity, their iconic design was a fundamental reason why the phone boxes were so popular, and have remained so until this day. The K2 was a typical example of Sir Giles’ masterful blending of classical and modern styles. Despite its traditional appearance, functionally it was very advanced. It had an ingenious ventilation system using tiny holes in the dome, and the glass was divided into small panels for easy replacement in case of breakages.

The K2 was painted a majestic red, with the royal crest above the word “TELEPHONE”, and finished off with a gently domed roof. The roof is arguably the crowning touch of aesthetic genius of Sir Giles’ design; the curves softening what would otherwise have been a very rigid, straight structure. The K2 was more than just a telephone; it was a place, and entering it felt like stepping into a beautifully designed miniature building. With the heavy door shut, it was as if you were in another world entirely, helped by the fact that they were very well soundproofed. It turned the act of making a phone call into a special occasion, away from the noise and chaos of the outside world.

In 1936, the version of the phone box most of us are familiar with was introduced. The K6 (also called the Jubilee Kiosk because it was designed to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V) was smaller than the K2, and therefore cheaper to produce. With its elegantly domed roof, elaborate glass panels, and majestic black telephone it is widely considered a design classic – not just in Britain but across the whole world. Many K6s even had a little mirror installed, so that you could quickly check your appearance before stepping back outside. The K6 was the first red phone box to be used extensively outside of London and, in total, seventy thousand of them were installed in Britain’s streets.

This version reigned supreme until the 1960s, when the futuristic sounding KX100 was introduced in response to the K6’s problems of vandalism, theft, and high maintenance costs. Public phone boxes lost their domed roofs, their distinctive red colour, and finally even their doors. Unfortunately in the process they also lost their character, and the great British phone box was reduced to little more than a phone attached to a metal pole. The last K6 was installed in 1980, a dark year for phone box enthusiasts worldwide, and gradually more and more K6s were replaced by the soulless KX100.

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However, Westminster Council in London sparked a revival when they started reintroducing red phone boxes in order to attract tourists. Although you can still make phone calls from the remaining boxes, nowadays they exist for decoration purposes more than anything else, thanks to the rise of the mobile phone. And in London, the red phone box also serves another function, one which locals are aware of, but which might shock tourists when they open the door to take a look inside… the back wall of nearly every box in the centre of London is full of explicit cards selling sex. The great British telephone box has a dark secret: they are the perfect, cost-free space where London’s sex workers can advertise their services.

Although soliciting for business on the street is illegal in the UK, advertising prostitution is not, and so these cards offer a cheap and convenient way of staying inside the law. It is estimated that over 13 million cards are placed in telephone boxes in central London each year, equivalent to 36,500 a day! The Government and local authorities try to eliminate this practice, but attempts to prosecute “carders” have failed for the most part. The police can only prosecute carders who they catch red-handed, and with over 700 telephone boxes in central London, constant monitoring is simply not realistic. Approximately 150,000 cards are removed every week, but they are replaced by new ones immediately.

As for the boxes that fell into private hands, they have been used in a number of interesting and creative ways. For instance, Kingston-upon-Thames in London is home to a sculpture of tumbling telephones called “Out Of Order”, which positions 12 kiosks leaning against each other to create a domino effect. The famous guerilla artist Banksy has also got in on the act. In April 2006, he revealed his latest stunt: a crumpled red telephone box with an axe stuck in its side and “blood” spilling over the ground, a comment on its now obsolete status.

Nowadays the K6 is also used to add a little touch of Britain to bars and restaurants, and has become a quirky accessory for people’s homes and gardens – some people have even converted them into showers! There are companies in the UK that specialise in restoring phone boxes, so if you have a spare £5,000 lying around you can treat yourself to a fully working K6.

Did you know?
- In large English cities, some telephone booths accept Euros as well as sterling
- Several red phone boxes can also be found in America, and thanks to the colonial influence, in Malta, Bermuda, Gibraltar, Australia and New Zealand
- In Kingston upon Hull in England, the telephone system used to be under the control of the city council rather than the Post Office, so phone boxes were painted cream – and had no crown


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Easy Summary

In 1920 the United Kingdom Post Office introduced the first standard public phone box: the K1. It was mostly white, with bright red window panels. The shape of its roof was very angular. It was not popular.

In 1924 a competition was held to design a new version of the phone box for use in London. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott created the winning design: the K2. It was painted a majestic red, with the royal crest above the word “TELEPHONE”. It had a gently domed roof.

In 1936, the version of the phone box most of us are familiar with was introduced: the K6. It was smaller than the K2, and therefore cheaper to produce.

In the 1960s, the KX100 was introduced in response to the K6’s problems of vandalism, theft, and high maintenance costs. Public phone boxes lost their domed roofs, their red colour, and even their doors. However, they also lost their character. The great British phone box was reduced to a phone attached to a metal pole.

However, Westminster Council in London sparked a revival when they started reintroducing the red K6 phone boxes in order to attract tourists. Nowadays the K6 is also used to add a little touch of Britain to bars and restaurants, and has become a quirky accessory for people’s homes and gardens – some people have even converted them into showers!

 

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The evolution of a telephone box

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