Before cellular phones were around, way before that, phone booths were the place you would head to when you wanted to have a private conversation or when you weren’t at home and needed to make a phone call.  While the first public phone booth in Italy was installed in Milan’s Piazza San Babila in 1952, today phone booths have come very close to the point of extinction and the tokens (gettoni) used to make calls are another reminder of “they way we were.”


telephone booth

An Italian Telephone Booth

telephone booth

telephone booth

The beginning of the end for the telephone booth: THIS TELEPHONE BOOTH WILL BE REMOVED ON 31/08/2011. Dear citizen, to request that this telephone booth remain active please send an email to within 30 days of this notice. Provide your personal information and the reasons for your request.


During the ’70s there were about  2,500 phone booths in Italy, a number which reached 33,000 during the ’80s. No wonder the slogan of the SIP, the Italian phone company at the time, was “Non sei mai solo quando sei vicino a un telefono!”  (“You’re never alone when you’re near a telephone”).Which, by the way, also makes perfect sense today in our cell phone dependent society.


Telecom ad campaign 1977-79: Far away from the eyes, but not from the heart

telephone booth

A man passes a telephone booth while speaking on his cell phone | Photo Gilmoth

Phone tokens started in Chicago, where they were the only form of payment accepted by public phones and then spread to Europe, Israel, Japan and Turkey. If you are in your 20s and you are reading this, you probably have no clue or maybe can’t even wrap your head around the idea that if you wanted to gossip with your best friend or tell sweet things to your boyfriend or girlfriend without your parents around, then you would have to head down the street armed with a gettone.  If your call was within the city then you could talk for hours on end.
telephone booth

The Italian telephone token

Even Vatican City had its own gettone and whereas today its value among collectors can reach 6-7 €,  back then the copper-bronze coin was worth about 50 Lire. Throughout Italy the gettonewas accepted as legal tender and in 1980 its cost suddenly doubled to 100 Lire.  In 1984 its price doubled again to 200 Lire and it remained at this cost until 2001 when it was replaced for good by a plastic phone card.

The original phone card in Lire

The phone card switches to Euros

It is said that there used to be 7 phone tokens for each Italian citizen.  Virtually everyone would carry phone coins in their pockets either as small change or because sooner or later they would come in handy when you needed to you use a public phone. I remember looking in my Grandma’s purse as a little girl.  I was searching for some money to buy gazosa, a fizzy drink, or cedrata, a citrus soda, but among the change I would always find were some phone tokens. Too bad those round copper disks would stick out so well that Grandma would know if they went missing.
telephone booth

A sign for a public telephone | Photo Giovanni Novara

Originally public phones were inside businesses, like this one in 1959