Friday, November 27, 2020

The Iconic Red Phone Box


                                                        One of the older ones still on the street

You might think that fads began with the internet, planking, slapping and ice buckets are three that come to mind but they have been around since human beings could talk. The Neanderthals probably thought of a fashionable hair plait, ancient Britain’s might have sported a new design of wode on the face.

Could you get 25 South Africans in here?

In the 1950s there was a trend for how many people you could stuff in a phone box that later went tolhow many people you could stuff in a mini car.

The world record for ‘phone box stuffing’ was set in 1959 when 25 students at Durban YMCA stuffed themselves into a standard phone booth. It’s recorded that when the phone rang nobody could answer it. Other attempts on the world record have failed due to cheating, ie not enough of the body parts in the box, or the phone box was lying down.

The red telephone box is a very British thing. The first one  was called K1,  and the second incarnation, (K2!) has been voted as one of Britain’s top 10 design icons. There's a  whole series of K’s from 1 to 6 ending in KX in 1985. I was disappointed that they never named one K9.  


                                 Photo from an article in the Guardian - the Soanes family toomb, and K1

The Red Box It was initially designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the dome on the top is reminiscent of the mausoleum of Sir John Soane. There are still 7 KI boxes – kiosk number 1 - in  Britain, that are upright snd functional in some way.  They were placed on the streets in 1921 so they have been about for a long time.  These seven have been listed by Historic Britain for their protection and they are objects of such affection that villages are able to adopt them legally, as well as buy them outright as a community space. 

In 1925,  there were a 100 of them, mostly in London. By the  time we get to 1980 there were 73,000 new ones produced, with 5 foundries making the cast iron kiosks. They are were mostly manufactured in Scotland.  By that time, there was 132 000 of them on the streets.



The Brits are very protective of them. Questions were asked in Parliament when GPO  tried to change their colour.  There was outrage, protests etc, nowadays there would be twitter spats and calls for larger phone boxes for the claustaphobia sufferers. 

The Tudor Crown on the side became the St Edwards Crown  and at that point the Scottish phone boxes changed theirs to have the Crown of Scotland. They were made with a removable plate that could carry whatever emblem was accurate.

There are many uses for them:

Shower cubicles in private homes.

Shower cubicles on piers and beaches

As an artwork installation, like these ones resembling a row of fallen dominoes


Libraries for small books in small places (called a micro library)


Art galleries selling cards and small prints.

Art galleries with the art being projected onto the streets and walls outside.

They house defibrillator units.

Mobile phone charging units  ( oh the irony)

Coffee shops

Restaurants  for small gatherings

Colour therapy box with stained glass windows, you stand inside and are forced to relax.

Salad Bars

Cake shops

Memorial box for those who have passed

They could, I suppose, become very small writing spaces, or just somewhere to sit and people watch. Everybody will wonder what you are up to. 

Weird. Interesting and more British that James Bond eating chips and a Bacon Butty!



  1. How splendid, Caro. Iconic is the only word to describe them. The man/men who suggested changing the color have wires missing their brains. (I am certain they were men.)

    If I had a place to put it, I would buy one--just to look at it.

  2. I'd be very surprised if, in these days of voyeuristic cams, some "street artist" hasn't LIVED in one, on a public street, never stepping outside it for some period of weeks. All on public display. Ewww.

  3. I don't think 25 of me would fit into a phone box. By the way, in South Africa we call them tickey boxes - tickey being the slang for thruppence, which was what it cost to place a call.

    1. Twenty-five of you would not fit into my kitchen, Stan, unless you stacked yourselves up cordwood!

  4. Hmm, there was one in my old neighborhood in NYC's East Village. It stood outside an "English" themed restaurant on 2nd Avenue.

    But my most vivid memory of phone booths, involves a standard issue American one that stood by a hotel swimming pool in Miami Beach. Late one night over college Spring Break I used it to propose to the lady who later became the mother of my children. Before I'd finished the call, though, it and I literally ended up in the deep end of the pool. How and why that happened is another story, for a more private telling. :)