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.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Sun Records Discography
Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors
The Remington Site
Clubs & Associations
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: 78 Records
Source: Google News
Artesian plans anniversary eventDaily Ardmoreite, July 30th
A classic 1916 Edison Phonograph that entertained guests in the original Artesian Hotel's dining room will be on display, playing 78 RPM records from the period. The phonograph, which was recently donated back to The Artesian, was used in the original ...Read more
The Classical ConnectionThe Hindu, July 30th
But unlike in a typical connoisseur-packed mehfil or a 78 RPM recording, as was common those days, this happened on the big screen for the film, 'Baiju Bawra' (1952). The famous musical confrontation between Tansen and Baiju Bawra in the presence of ...Read more
Playback: Waterloo Records at 33¹/ 3 : Waterloo Records turns 33¹/ 3 ; native ...Austin Chronicle, July 29th
and Barton Springs called Waterloo Records. Today, Kunz still works six days a week. Now 64 (cue the Beatles), he obliged our request to reflect on his personal Waterloo history at the three ages represented by turntable speeds: 33¹/3, 45, and 78 rpm...Read more
Square dancing is more ethnic than you thinkBlack Mountain News, July 29th
A third and final map pinpoints the regional location of dance callers, who were recorded on 78 rpm recordings in the 1920s and 30s. As a companion to the book, Jamison maintains a website featuring the recordings of nearly 100 Southern dance callers ...Read more
The Lingering Hangover of Capitol Hill Block Party 2015 in Words and PhotosTheStranger.com (blog), July 29th
There was BADBADNOTGOOD, proving that frenetic and finesseful jazz fusion that flows at 78 RPM in a 33 1/3 world could get a crowd amped. The drummer served as their hype man, and he earnestly urged the crowd to jump as high as they could in the ...Read more
Ghost Woman BluesLivemint, July 29th
Perhaps, the most mysterious figure of the lot (Robert Johnson notwithstanding) is Geeshie Wiley, the singer and guitarist who cut three 78-rpm records in 1930 and 1931 with her partner Elvie Thomas, and promptly disappeared without a trace. Wiley's ...Read more
Explore the magic of Vilayat Hussein Khan, a great guru who was also an ideal ...Scroll.in, July 24th
Khan cut many 78 rpm and 45 rpm records and recorded extensively for the All India Radio. His scholarship is evident in the variety of raags that he recorded. Here are a few of his commercial recordings. Additional information has been sourced from the ...Read more
You can make a tortilla into a 78 RPM record, play it, and then eat itCBC.ca, July 8th
For millennia now, humanity has dreamed of alchemy — turning base metals to gold. For maybe a couple of months now, humanity has dreamed of turning a tortilla into a 78 RPM record. And now, one of those dreams has finally become a reality. Not the ...Read more