Before iTunes, CDs, 8-tracks, LPs, or even seven-inch EPs, 78s were the main medium for recorded music, so-called because they were played at 78 rotations per minute (rpm). Produced primarily by Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and Capitol, 78s were first invented by Emile Berliner in the late 19th century.

At first, Berliner made the “plates,” as the records were called, out of celluloid and rubber-based materials, but in 1894 he switched to shellac, inspired by its transformative impact on the telephone industry. Early shellac 78s measured seven inches across, but by 1900 they were generally 10 or 12 inches in diameter.

For years, early radio stations in both the U.S. and Britain did everything they could to drive 78s out of the market. At the time, most radio stations provided listeners with live music—recorded music represented a threat to their business model. Thus, they discouraged their listeners from spending money on “canned” music. In England, the Musicians Union went so far as to require radio stations to pay the Union for every minute they played records instead of live music.

Thanks to these policies and the poor sound quality of 78s, records took a while to catch on. In the 1920s, Thomas Edison released a competitor to the 78, the Edison disc, which was much thicker (a full quarter-inch!) and featured better audio quality. But the Edison disc required its own expensive phonograph, and it was discontinued in 1929, the same year opera star Arturo Toscanini declared that he would never record anything because a record could not fully capture the beauty of his voice.

Even so, record companies released a wide variety of genres on 78s, from classical to pop to recorded animal noises. In fact, classical releases spawned the origin of the term “album”: because each side of a 78 could only hold about five minutes of music, hour-long symphonies had to be divided into six discs, which were bound together in something resembling a photo album. Seventy-eights were better suited to short pop songs, but this length limitation would prove to be the format’s biggest weakness in the decades to come.

Still, 78s gradually gained acceptance, helped along by the popularity of jukeboxes after the Depression. Then, in 1942, the American Federation of Musicians declared that it would not record anything that did not directly help the American war effort—shellac was scarce, and it was an important material during wartime. The moratorium on record manufacturing lasted until 1944. When production got back on track, though, much of the shellac used for new records was recycled, which resulted in lower-quality discs.

Even so, shellac was on its way out anyway. In 1948, Columbia released the 10-inch LP; when Victor responded with the 45 in 1949, the “War of the Speeds” was on, and the industry soon switched from shellac to vinyl, which was much more durable and allowed for thinner grooves and, thus, longer playing times per side...

In the mid-1950s, seven-inch vinyl singles began cutting into the popularity of 78s even more. Indeed, 1958 was the last year the 78 was the best-selling format in the United States; within five years, 78s were no longer produced in any Western countries, though foreign labels like EMI’s Indian division kept producing them for a bit longer.

Since then, the 78 rpm speed and format have been revived a few times as a promotional gimmick, but these records are generally pressed on vinyl rather than shellac. One example was the Sundown Playboys’ “Saturday Nite Special” in 1971.

The most collectible 78s today are those from the late ’50s, when 78s were less common and releases were often pressed on multiple formats. In the U.K., for example, Elvis Presley’s “A Mess of Blues” is highly collectible as a 78 because it is much easier to find as a seven-inch vinyl single.

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Recent News: 78 Records

Source: Google News

Rich Warren: Sounding off on a legend in the audio business
Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette, November 20th

Until 20 years ago it was relatively easy to buy the much wider 78 rpm stylus (needle) for many phonograph cartridges. You still can find them on the Internet for $25-$100. You also must readjust the tracking force of the tonearm from about 1.25 grams...Read more

Remembering Camden at 78 rpm
Philly.com, November 9th

Stefan Orn Arnarson gently places his grandmother's Victor Red Label 78 on the turntable and under the stylus of the Victrola. The bittersweetness of Fritz Kreisler's violin pours from the machine, which - like the original recording itself - was made...Read more

New York Writer Takes Us Back To The Heyday Of 78 RPM Records
WUWM, July 30th

If you're older than, say, 35, you probably have heard of the 78 RPM record, even if you haven't actually heard one. The 78s heyday was in the first half of the 20th Century, before they gave way to LPs, and 45s, and later eight-track tapes and...Read more

'Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 ...
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Midway through her thoughtful, entertaining history of obsessed music collectors and their quest for rare early 78 rpm records, writer Amanda Petrusich has a revelation. Focusing on one particular seeker and his knack for finding obscure titles others...Read more

"Do Not Sell At Any Price" opens up crazy world of 78 RPM record collecting
The Denver Post, July 12th

The characters in "Do Not Sell At Any Price" are in a state of constant amazement — at the arcane world of rare 78 RPM records, at the ephemeral nature of music legends, and most of all, at themselves and their hard-won collections. Journalist Amanda ...Read more

'Do Not Sell at Any Price' review: Pitchfork writer chronicles quest for world ...
New York Daily News (blog), July 9th

Petrusich's “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records” is a generous, finely wrought portrait of 78 record collectors and their absurdly difficult, tremendously rewarding trade. Driven to explore 78...Read more

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Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records. This excerpt from Amanda Petrusich's new book tells the unlikely story of eccentric record collector Harry Smith, and how his Anthology of American Folk Music...Read more