The early phone boxes were made tall enough for a gentleman to enter its confined space without removing his top hat.
But since the advent of mobile phones, they have met a swift and inglorious end. So prevalent was their new function taken to be, as a urinal, sloping floors were constructed to aid cleaning.
Another function has been to advertise ‘adult’ services.
Curiously one of the world’s leading medical history libraries, the Wellcome Library, is home to the world’s largest collection of ‘tart cards’, with over 4,500 collected since 1991, despite Westminster Council passing laws outlawing them and officials going round removing them on a daily basis the cards have appeared with relentless regularity.
This unique form of advertising by ‘ladies of the night’, has become the raison d’être of the central London phone box.
Phone boxes have been the usual depository for countless numbers of these small ‘business’ cards, promising all sorts of forbidden pleasures, from spanking to transsexual encounters, in the privacy of your hotel room or in fully equipped chambers.
The earliest cards in the Wellcome collection date from the start of the 1980’s, and it is interesting to see how these little adverts have evolved over the decades. The first is simple, homemade affairs, photocopies glued on to cardboard, while by the 21st-century colour printing and photoshopping had become widely available and the production much sleeker, many presumably having an image far removed from the actual person providing these services.
Content has changed too, as boundaries have shifted. In the 1980s discretion was still important. The cards contained little more than a phone number and imagery would be restricted to a drawing of a female form. But as taboos fell away, so the cards became more upfront and witty, with revealing photos, images of girls dressed up for role play, explicitly jokey straplines and a wider range of services more openly offered.
And the ladies too are different. Whereas 30 years ago they were predominantly British, London’s ‘working girls’ today reflect the city’s increasingly multicultural character.
In 2003 it was estimated that about 13 million cards were placed in London phone boxes each year.
But with BT planning to press Button B to cancel calls in 20,000 phone boxes – about half the remaining booths – these advertisers will now have to find other ways including the internet and mobile phones to provide more modern and efficient ways to do business.
Tart cards acquired something of a cult status. Tourists were known to take them and send them home as postcards; even kids, bored with trading Pokémon cards, collected them. Once the emblem of a sleazier side of life, their days are numbered. No more will we able to peruse the like of this literary gem from February 1992:
Roses are red;
violets are blue,
St. Valentine’s coming;
and so may you.
Featured image: A selection of cards from the Wellcome Trust (CC BY 4.0)