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 1912, 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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Sun Records Discography

Sun Records Discography

John Boija's comprehensive site offers photos of every 45, 78, and LP recorded at Sun Records—from those recorded… [read review or visit site]

Vinyl Divas

Vinyl Divas

Vinyl Divas pays homage to international female opera singers of the LP era. Chronicling more than 800 singers, the… [read review or visit site]



Despite its mysterious title, 317X is plain and simple—an online gallery of vintage LPs, with a 1950s vintage fee… [read review or visit site]

Jesse Barron's collection of Beatles 45s, picture sleeves, magazines, books, and memorabilia. Browse singles and al… [read review or visit site]

Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors

Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors

This great site, from the Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors, offers detailed background information an… [read review or visit site]

The Remington Site

The Remington Site

Since 1999, the Remington Site has offered classical music collectors a glimpse into Remington Records, an independ… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Blues 78 Georgia Columbia 14299 Barbecue Bob Rhino Records Jukebox Classics 78 Rpm Vinyl Records Rnjb 78000. SealedBrun 7071 Jabbo Smith Rhythm Aces Ace Of Rhythms 1929 78 Rpm E+ Hot Hot Hot!Rhino Records Jukebox Classics The 60's 78 Rpm Vinyl Records Rnjb 78001. Sealed2 Uncle Dave Macon Vocalion 15324 & 14849 Poor Sinners - Down By River 78 Rpm Rhino Records Jukebox Classics 78 Rpm Vinyl Records Colored Rnjb 78002. Re-issue78 Rpm -- Frank Sinatra Autograph On Columbia 12" Promo 78 1945, E-/v+ Jazz78rpm – Lewis Brothers – Bull At The Wagon – Victor 40172Elvis Presley - Rca Victor Lpm-1254 Us Original Pressing 1956 78 Rpm Blues – Memphis Minnie – Hot Stuff – Vocalion 03651 – E78 Rpm Blues Otis Rush On Cobra All Your Love / My Baby's A Good Un In E Hear!Columbia 14204d James P. Johnson Snowy Morning Blues 1927 78 Rpm Ee+ 78rpm Rock N Roll Chuck Berry Chess 169178 Rpm Blues Albert King On Parrot Bad Luck Blues / Merry Way In E-/e Hear!78 Rpm Blues Earl Hooker Record Shop Special Blue Guitar / Race Track N- Hear!Television Personalities Tv - 14th Floor - Original 7" Punk Kbd Teen 78 O'levelDial Bebop Jazz 1948 Charlie Parker Others ( Volume Two) 78 Rpm 3 Disc Set E+ Jazz Hokum Hawaiian 78 Columbia 14586 Red Devils King Bennie Nawahi Victor 21077 Ross De Luxe Syncopators Stop Tasing Me 1927 Savannah 78 Rpm E Edison 14078 (needle Cut) Warren Yates With Sleeve 1929 78 Rpm E+ Decca 7707 Charlie Pickett Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon Guitar 1937 78 Rpm E-/e78 Rpm Blues Otis Rush On Cobra She's A Good Un / Three Times A Fool In V+ Hear!Edison 14063 (needle Cut) Muriel Pollock With Unusual Sleeve 1929 78 Rpm Ee+ Jerry Lee Lewis/whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On & It'll Be Me 78 Rpm 10" Sun Label78 Rpm Blues James Bannister On States Gold Digger / Blues And Trouble E+ Hear!Near Mint! Classic Chuck Berry 78 Sweet Little Sixteen /reelin & Rockin Hlm8585Edison 14063 (needle Cut) B.a.rolfe Orchtoy Makers Dream Sleeve 1929 78 Rpm Ee+ Pre War Hot Hawaiian 78 Prince Wong Jumping Jack Blues Perfect 11243 E+ Hear It78rpm – Mclaughlin's Old Time Melody Makers – Dill Pickles Rag – Victor 21286 E+Blues String Band 78 Alabama American Music 104 Mobile Strugglers Rare Edith Piaf 78 La Vie En Rose / Un Refrain Courait Dan La Rue Col. Dc 415 M-10-1950's Rock/pop/doo Wop Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #210" 78 Rpm Uk = Elvis Presley. Heartbreak Hotel/i Was The One Pop.182 Ex/ex+10" 78 Rpm Uk Hmv = Elvis Presley. Hound Dog/don't Be Cruel. Pop. 249 Ex6-hank Williams 78 Rpm 10" Records M-g-m Lot #110-1950's Rock/pop/doo Wop Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #878 Rpm Vocalion 04237 Blind Boy Fuller Funny Feeling Blues 1938 ♫Pre War Country 78 Riley Puckett Mama Won't Allow No Low Down Col. 15261 E Hear78: Victor 21710 - Slim Lamar Goofus / Happy -e ++ - With Stock Sleeve 78rpm Country Hank Williams Sterling 21010-1950's Rhythm & Blues Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #278rpm Rock N Roll Screamin Jay Hawkins Okeh 1072Victor Savinon - Soul Makossa - Latin Guaguanco - Oro Disco - Nice!!10-1950's Rock/pop/doo Wop Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #178 Rpm Blues Ernest Lewis On Parrot West Coast Blues / No More Lovin' E+ Hear!1901 Columbia Phonograph Climax 78 Rpm Record I Need The Money No 112 Ed Favor10" 78 Rpm Columbia,cliff Richard. High Class Baby/my Feet Hit The Ground Ex-/vg10-1950's Rhythm & Blues Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #178 Rpm "melancholy Mood/from The Bottom Of My Heart" Harry James (vocal Frank SiBascum Lamar Lunsford 78rpm Okeh Jesse James78 Rpm Blues Dusty Brown On Parrot Yes She's Gone / He Don't Love In N-/e Hear!Pre War Hot Hawaiian 78 Kalama's Quartette Liliu E Okeh 41262 E+ Hear ItPre War Country 78 Bob Wills Playboys Weary Of Same Ol' Vocalion 03343 E+ Hear6-hank Williams 78 Rpm 10" Records M-g-m Lot #278rpm Country Gid Tanner & Skillet-lickers Columbia 15134-d10-1950's Rock/pop/doo Wop Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #310-1950's Rock/pop/doo Wop Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #478rpm Rock N Roll Chuck Berry Chess 171678 Rpm Brunswick 3532 Fess Williams Royal Flush Orchestra Phantom Blues 1927 ♫10-1950's Rock/pop/doo Wop Themed 78 Rpm 10" Records Various Artists Lot #6