Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876. Thirteen years later, in 1889, William Gray of Hartford, Conn., patented a coin-operated pay phone and invented the telephone booth for privacy while making calls.
Numerous stamps feature telephones, from Bell's invention as illustrated on his patent application on a 1976 13¢ United States stamp (Scott 1683) to warnings about not texting on your cell phone while driving on a Spanish Civil Values stamp issued this year on Jan. 9. However, the telephone booth receives few such honors.
In the past five years, only a handful of stamps have prominently featured the phone booth and only two directly honor it. Both stamps were issued in 2009, one by Great Britain and the other by Norway. The former stamp (Great Britain Scott 2620) was released on Jan. 13 in a British Design set of 10, and the latter (Norway 1583) in the Norwegian Year of Cultural Heritage set of two. Both stamps are nondenominated, paying the basic domestic rate.
The British stamp pictures a red telephone booth on a white background. Inscribed below the booth is "K2 Telephone Kiosk Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott."
An architect from a family of architects, Scott had won a General Post Office competition in 1924 to redesign Britain's telephone booths. The K2 designation stands for "kiosk 2." Scott also designed K3 and K6. The latter was commissioned to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935. The following year, 1936, 8,000 of these booths were installed across Britain.
In an article called "Focus on Telephone Boxes," the English Heritage web site, www.imagesofengland.org.uk, says: "The K6 was the first kiosk design to be rolled out on a massive scale outside of London. Initially it appeared in every town and village that had a post office, providing many people with a service they previously had had no access to. Eventually the phone boxes were put into service in other areas and replaced the earlier models of K1 and K3. From its inception in 1936 until the end of the decade, over 20,000 K6s were erected and became a well-known sight at the side of the road. Painted bright red like its predecessors, the K6 design can be distinguished by its differences to previous kiosks, such as the change to marginal glazing bars on the windows and doors and unperforated crowns on the panels. The design retains the domed roof and telephone lettering above the glazing on the door and windows."
Some of Scott's architectural works also have been pictured on British stamps. Most recently, the Bankside Power Station, which was transformed into the Tate Modern, is shown on a London 2012 Olympic Games stamp issued July 27.
Like the British Design stamp, the Norwegian stamp features a red telephone booth. It is shown in the foreground with a cloudy sky and sea in the background.
The story of Norway's red booth parallels that of Britain's K2. The new-issue announcement from Posten gives a brief history: "In 1932 a young architect, Georg Fredrik Fasting, won the Oslo Telephone Exchange's competition for the design of an outdoor telephone kiosk and received a prize of NOK800 [800 Norwegian krone]. By 1933 the first telephone kiosk was in place on the quay below Akershus Castle. Soon the red telephone kiosk could be seen everywhere."
Telephone booths have almost vanished from the landscape in Norway, as they have in other countries, including the United States and Great Britain. According to Posten, from a peak of 6,000 phone booths in Norway in the 1960s, only about 100 remain. Posten adds that these booths are protected by a 2007 agreement between Telenor and the Directorate of Cultural Heritage.
In Great Britain, BT (British Telecom) has established an adopt-a-kiosk program for towns and villages that want to keep their phone booths. More than 1,800 booths had been adopted as of April, according to a BT press release. Other booths are for sale.
A 2008 stamp from the Isle of Man depicts a British telephone booth on the right and Sir Frank Gill on the left (Scott 1275c). The stamp was issued Aug. 1 in conjunction with the publication of the Manx Heritage Foundation's The New Manx Worthies. This book contains biographies of more than 200 influential Manx figures of the 20th century.
An inscription on the stamp calls Gill a "telephony and communications engineer." Born in 1866 in Castleton, Isle of Man, he lived until 1950. An article in the 1923 annual issue of the Isle of Man Examiner reported that among other positions he held, Gill was engineer-in-chief of the National Telephone Company from 1902 to 1913 and controller of the central stores department of the Ministry of Munitions during World War I.
The newspaper article also stated: " … He has various electrical inventions to his credit, is a member of the British Engineering Standards Committee, and has studied telephone matters at first hand in almost every country in both hemispheres …"
A set of five Australian stamps issued earlier this year on Feb. 7 compares and contrasts technologies of the 20th and early 21st centuries. One stamp in this Technology — Then and Now set pictures a cell phone on the left and rows of telephone operators and phone booths on the right. A woman, dressed in the style of the early 1960s with a fur-fringed hat and coat, is speaking on one of the phones.
The image is from a 1963 photograph by German-Australian photographer Wolfgang Sievers. The photograph is part of the Sievers' collection at the National Library of Australia. According to the library's web site, it was taken in 1963 at the Lysaght phone booths in the Spencer Street Railway Station in Melbourne.
— Denise McCarty, Linn's senior editor and World of New Issues columnist