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

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The Council Record
Raleigh Public Record, February 8th

Citing the time limit, Allen joked "I'm going to move this from 45 RPM to 78 RPM." The goal, Allen said, was to strengthen the arts and culture for all of the city's many communities and people. "This is a plan for the residents of this community," he...Read more

Recent skull cinema features (somewhat) inspire
Fairfield Daily Republic, February 8th

A voice somewhere booms “Faster!” and the speed of the album increases from 33 and a third rpm to 45 rpm. I quicken my pace, but when it goes to 78 rpm I fall and am flung off into a waiting giant Sony Walkman. The cassette door begins to slowly close...Read more

Steve Cottrell: San Sebastian key to solving parking problems
St. Augustine Record, February 7th

Hate to admit it, but I'm old enough to remember Stan Freberg's 1957 parody, “Wun'erful, Wun'erful,” lampooning Lawrence Welk and his rhythmic Champagne music. I even recall the final words of the 78 rpm vinyl record as the Aragon Ballroom was engulfed ...Read more

How the Ping Anser putter, one of the most iconic clubs in golf history, came ..., February 7th

The most popular putter style of all time started with a drawing on a 78 r.p.m. record jacket. That is the canvas Karsten Solheim, a Norwegian-born engineer who worked on jet fighters and missile guidance systems after World War II, used to sketch the...Read more

Addict longs for CBC to return to its trusted ways
The Daily Courier (subscription), February 7th

My name is Jim, and I listen to the CBC. It didn't start that way. When I was young, my parents listened to the CBC, so of course I didn't. I listened to Red Robinson. I coveted Jack Cullen's enormous personal library of 78-rpm records. My first full...Read more

What's your favorite audio format: LP, CD, cassette, 8-track, FLAC, DSD or MP3?
CNET, February 6th

The LP is the oldest surviving consumer audio format. It was introduced in 1948, and it's still going strong with double-digit sales increases over the last few years. The LP is no longer just a nostalgia trip for baby boomers and Gen Xers; today's...Read more

'Why the Mountains Are Black' aims to show music as a 'tool for survival'
Los Angeles Times, January 28th

Well-known record collector Chris King, who curated the new collection of Greek village music "Why the Mountains are Black" for Jack White's label, Third Man Records. Well-known record collector Chris King, who curated the new collection of Greek...Read more

Music Journalist Chronicles The 'Wild Obsessive Hunt' For Rare 78 RPM Records
NPR, August 11th

With almost all the music you'd ever want to listen to available online digitally, the obsessive hunt for scratchy, fragile 78 RPM records may seem anachronistic. But author Amanda Petrusich says that those early records, which hold between two and...Read more