Friday, September 6, 2013
What goes round…
Once upon a time we all sent lots of letters. Often we'd run out of postage stamps and the Post Office and shops would be closed, but we'd still want to get the letter in the mail. So there were stamp machines. You stuck a penny (or a higher value coin) in the slot, and a stamp, or a book of stamps, popped out, and you could send your letter on its way. Stamp machines were found in the walls of Post Offices, next to mail boxes, or set into the side of a special kind of stretched phone box, like this one: the K4 telephone kiosk introduced in 1927 as a sort of Post Office in miniature. An enlarged version of the much-loved red telephone box designed by Gilbert Scott, the K4 was sometimes known as the vermillion giant.
Avoncroft, which houses the National Collection of telephone boxes. Both K4s and stamp machines disappeared when the price of stamps began to make coin-in-the-slot vending impracticable – when stamps increased in cost and the standard stamps weren't priced in convenient multiples of £1. At the same time email was replacing real mail in many cases, further accelerating the demise of stamp machines. And it was a similar story with other kinds of coin-in-the-slot vending. The only time I usually put a coin in a slot theses days is to pay for parking. With the rise of the mobile phone, many standard red phone boxes in Britain (the ones without stamp machines and mail boxes) have disappeared too, although there are worthy efforts to preserve them. So, once-loved pieces of street furniture become less useful (or less generally useful), and die out or acquire new uses.
And yet. Automatic payment systems are on the rise. Supermarkets are getting us used to scanning our own groceries and paying for them with our plastic cards, without (in theory) the intervention of supermarket staff. I have very mixed feelings about this, but it's happening and we have to deal with it. Maybe a new building type will emerge to handle some as yet unthought-of automatic transaction. I hope it will be as elegant a solution as the red phone box, and its slightly cumbersome, but still impressive, cousin, the vermillion giant.