The allure of vintage British 'telephone boxes'
Feb. 13, 2012
by Mark Ollig

It immediately captures your attention when you first see one.

They have the look of hand-crafted, well-made pieces of antique furniture.

It’s a reminder of early 20th century, artistry skill, and innovation.

They reflect the dedication of those who brought telecommunications to the people living in large cities, small towns, and rural areas throughout the United Kingdom.

What am I talking about?

The British call it a telephone box, or kiosk.

We call it a payphone booth.

Originally, all UK postal mail was under the sole control and operation of the UK’s General Postal Office or GPO, which Britain’s Charles II originally established in 1660.

When telegraph and telephone became available, they too, came under the GPO umbrella.

Those old British telephone boxes hold a certain fascination with me, and over the last few years, I have been collecting photographs of them, and visiting various UK websites to examine their history.

This allure I have about them is due, in part, to the time yours truly spent installing and repairing the payphones in my hometown.

I learned the British highly regard their beloved red telephone boxes as landmarks, and as an important part of their symbolic history.

Before the first telephone box was installed, the British were using an outdoor mail letter box or “pillar box,” painted green.

Unfortunately, those green mail letter boxes blended in too much with the green landscape. People were having a hard time finding them.

This led the UK’s post office to decide, in 1874, to repaint all the existing mail letter boxes a bright red, or what became called “pillar box red.”

That took 10 years to complete.

Today, these older mail letter boxes have become very popular, and are sought after by collectors.

One of the earliest outdoor British telephone boxes was called Kiosk No. 1 (K1). It appeared around 1921.

This kiosk telephone box used reinforced concrete, had a wooden entrance door, and two sides of paneled glass held in place by wooden muntin or glazing bars.

One of the distinguishing features of this particular telephone kiosk was its spiraling, spear-like ornament atop its roof.

Rooftop signs with the word TELEPHONE were attached to some K1 models starting in 1924.

These earlier telephone boxes were usually painted red, although I have seen some with added colors accommodating the local surroundings.

In 1927, bright red-painted cast iron K2 telephone boxes were installed along the streets of London.

White enamel was painted inside, underneath the kiosk’s roof.

Along all four sides of the top of the kiosk, it showcased the royal crest of King George V.

The K2 was heavy; this telephone box weighed in at 1.5 tons. Today, the K2 telephone boxes in London are preserved in the same manner we preserve buildings as national historic landmarks.

By 1931, K1 telephone boxes were no longer being installed, and the K2 had become obsolete by 1936, having already been replaced with the K3.

The K3, with a domed roof, was made mostly out of concrete, and was first introduced in 1929. It was intended for use in the more rural and urban areas outside London.

The K3 was greyish in color, with the window frames painted red.

It was later learned concrete was not a very suitable material for an outdoor telephone kiosk, and thus, the K3 was the last telephone box to be made with it.

Around 1928, a new, cast iron K4 was announced.

In addition to housing a telephone, the red painted K4 was also used for dispersing stamps and mailing envelopes.

A new transportable telephone kiosk, the K5, was introduced in 1934.

It was made of a type of steel-faced plywood, which could be disassembled and reassembled.

In 1935, to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the coronation of King George V (June 22, 1911), a K6 Jubilee Kiosk was commissioned, and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed it.

The K6 was presented in 1936 – the same year King George V passed away.

This telephone box was made of cast iron

Inside, the K6 contained a Bellset D 3001 telephone made from black Bakelite plastic, an electric light, and an A/B pushbutton coin collection box which was bolted to the wallboard.

The outer portion of the K6 was decorated with crowned ornaments and panels, and painted red.

The K6 Jubilee Kiosk was topped off with a domed roof.

Yes, that was my pun for the day.

Before the end of the 1930s, over 20,000 of these popular K6 telephone boxes were in use throughout the UK.

You can see a picture of a K6 Jubilee Kiosk telephone box here: http://tinyurl.com/85v3p4w.

Under the Post Office Act of 1969, the UK established a public authority called Post Office.

The Post Office was responsible for the development and operation of all telecommunications in the UK until 1981, when the British Telecommunications Act of 1981 transferred those responsibilities to British Telecom.

Many people are collectors of these early 20th century British telephone boxes.

A company called BritishBits refurbishes and sells vintage K6 telephone and mail letter boxes.

BritishBits can be found at: http://www.britishbits.co.uk.

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