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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Jack Garner: Must-see (or hear) 'Christmas Carols'Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, December 7th
It also was on my parents' set of fragile 78 rpm records as A Christmas Carol, starring Lionel Barrymore, which I've since discovered was performed on radio's Orson Welles' Campbell Playhouse in the late 1930s. (What a delight to discover it still...Read more
State adopts snowmobile noise testing lawThe Livingston County News, December 6th
The measure outlaws operating a snowmobile without a working muffler that keeps noise below 78 decibels at full throttle measured from 50 feet away. It also bans snowmobiles putting out 88 decibels at 4,000 rpm as measured from about 12 feet behind a ...Read more
Sam Wasson's 'Fosse'New York Times, December 6th
either choreographed or, eventually, directed were hits, with many of the earlier ones starring his muse, Gwen Verdon, whom Wasson artfully describes as “a luscious lollipop person with a voice she said sounded like a 78 r.p.m. record with a wobble...Read more
Looking Back: Echoes of music in the neighborhoodShoreline Times, December 5th
The company made 10-and 12-inch 78 rpm records that played from four to seven minutes and featured popular vocal, dance, operatic and orchestral selections. Lyric Records existed for about five years before going bankrupt and ceasing operations in 1921...Read more
Third Man Records Continues Sun Records Reissues Series with 7-Inches by ...Exclaim!, December 5th
The label notes that his two songs were long believed to have only existed in 78 rpm form, but a 45 rpm single emerged in 2010 and was sold on eBay for $10,323. This Third Man reissue marks the first time that Hunt's music has been widely available on ...Read more
Forget MP3s: Millennials flock to Allentown show for vinyl recordsAllentown Morning Call, December 1st
The next Semi-Annual 45/78 RPM Only Record Expo will be held April 5 followed by another broad-scale collectors' show on April 6 at Merchants Square Mall. Vendor Scott Steinberg of Bethlehem said his older patrons are primarily into music from the...Read more
The faces of record ownersOmaha World-Herald, November 30th
It's how Crawford feels about his favorite record, a priceless 78 RPM single by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, which he found after hours of digging through an antique store. Record collectors' love of vinyl gives them an identity because listening to and...Read more
Dallas Life: Arlington artist turns old albums into new jewelryDallas Morning News, November 30th
In a large laundry room-art studio in her home, Sylvie works on slicing and dicing old 33 and 45 rpm records. Her life, though, moves more like 78 rpm. A mother of two, she works full time as a special programs coordinator for the college of...Read more