Surely, no other public building holds as many personal memories with as many people? There is a natural explanation to the people’s love for the telephone booth. At one point there were over 6000 telephone booths distributed all across Norway, from Lindesnes in the south to Hammerfest in the north. Today there are only 100 left. They are all protected and will stand where they are – forever.
-When I say that we have put a protection order on these 100 telephone booths, most believe they have been taken into storage, or that they have been divided between various museums, but the point of having a protection plan is to make sure they can be kept at their original locations, says Laila Andersen, specialist adviser for Telenor Cultural Heritage..
-To bump into a telephone booth while you’re out for a walk awakens memories there and then. That’s why it’s so important to keep cultural heritage “rooted”.
Look up the telefon boxes
Laila too remembers the red telephone booth from back when she was a youth.
-I would use it to be able to speak in private because at home the telephone held a central place in the house, she says.
-So when you needed some privacy you would find your way to the nearest telephone booth?
-Yes. After 5 pm because then the money wouldn’t run out so fast. She laughs:
-I was never allowed to make calls before 5 pm. If I did, I would have to write down all that I wanted to say, so that mum could approve it.
-Yes, don’t you think? She laughs again.
-But such things were important back then. The rates were high.
This is how telephone booth – memories can bring up thoughts of how things were in the past. “Den lille røde” is a book issued in 2007 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the telephone booth, and is packed full of stories about hanging out in the booth, making prank calls, scratching your boy- or girlfriend’s name into the paint and to learn alternative names for the male sexual organ from scribblings on the walls. People saw the telephone booth as a public space, something that became evident in their treatment of them. Again and again, they were tagged all over, vandalised and broken, and Telenor (Televerket) reconditioned them, painted, cleaned and made sure the dial tone was present – for over six decades.
So how does it start, the story about the red telephone booth? Well, with the end of a monopoly and an architectural competition. Laila narrates:
- Already in 1885 “talking stations” were opened to the public in Oslo. As phones with dials were developed, and it became possible to place calls directly, the Narvesen kiosk company earned the sole rights to telephone rentals in Oslo. The problem with this solution was that Narvesen kiosks were limited by opening times. The telephone was not available after hours, Laila says.
Telenor (Telegrafverket with Oslo Telefonanlegg) took over the responsibility for public phones in Oslo, when Narvesen’s concession ran out on 31 December 1934. In this regard, the company announced a design competition. It was won by the architect, Georg Fredrik Fasting. Already in November 1933 the first “little red” was installed at Akershuskaia (Akershus quay).
-Telenor (Telegrafverket) and the Oslo Harbour Authorities found out that the harbour area was not included in the old concession, Linda smiles.
-Strategically, it was also a shrewd place to install a telephone booth, with lots of traffic. In addition to the ocean liners going to America, the “daddy boats” would land here coming from the islands in the Oslo fjord. The wife and children would stay in the holiday home all summer while dad would commute to work in the city with the “daddy boat”. That first telephone booth still stands in the same spot, in the middle of the Solsiden restaurant’s outside dining area.
Before the war, telephone booths were only to be found in- and around Oslo, but soon after the “little red” started popping up all over the country. The need was great, and while both the public- and the private sector were being connected to the tele network, you would have to wait years for a home telephone.
-The building society, OBOS, would for instance never even consider starting on a new development without including a telephone booth in the planning, says Laila.
-For a lot of housewives in the 1950s and 60s, the telephone booth was their window to the outside world. This caused a lot of aggravation for some. I have newspaper clippings featuring letters to the editor, complaining about women’s misuse of the booths. They are sitting there for far too long, chatting away, so that men with more important business have to hammer on the booth with their umbrellas
Laila is smiling and says she understands the women well.
In addition to the social value, the telephone booth fulfilled another important role in society. In accidents and at times of crisis a telephone booth nearby could save lives. No wonder Telenor’s (Televerket) main workshop had a lot on their plate at times. The demand was great, “please, let us have a telephone booth in our street?” 1961 saw the foundation of Telefonsøkendes Landsforening (the Telephone Seekers Association) at Røa in Oslo. When they finally got their own booth in Ekraveien, it was inaugurated with a speech broadcast on the radio and music by De Telefonløse Musikernes Orkester (The Orchestra of the Telephone less Musicians).
The telephone booth was a hit right up to the mid-80s, that’s when it turned. By then, there were telephones in most homes, and even mobile phones had started turning up.
-the termination of the telephone booths has been going on for the last 25 years, tells Laila.
-What’s happening to the old booths, are they being demolished?
-You know what; telephone booths are the one thing we receive the most public inquiries about. Some want one; others are angry that theirs have been removed. Where is our telephone booth? Did you read about Prillar-Guri? In the small village of Bjørke in the west of the country, the local population went into action when Telenor came to take away their telephone booth.
-They bolted it to the ground. Now it’s in the protection plan, smiles Laila.
-What do you say to people who want a telephone booth in their garden?
-Unfortunately, we have to turn them down. The telephone booths that are taken down become spare parts for the 100 that are left. We need those parts, after all those booths are staying for ever.