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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Elvis' first recording going on the marketUSA TODAY, December 17th
The 78 rpm acetate, recorded by an 18-year-old Presley in August 1953, possibly as a gift for his mother, is part of an auction that will take place on the grounds of the singer's Memphis home, Graceland, on Jan. 8, what would have been Presley's 80th ...Read more
Giving the gift of music: Top picks for 2014The Courier-Journal, December 17th
"Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records," Amanda Petrusich (Scribner, $25). Petrusich, who is one of the country's finest music and popular culture writers, explores the world of people who collect and ...Read more
Letter: Let's never forget our veteransNorwich Bulletin, December 16th
Amongst my mother's old collection of 78 rpm records was the wartime ballad "Let's Remember Pearl Harbor.” As a young boy in the 1950s, I played that I record a lot, and although I was told what it meant, I couldn't comprehend the significance of what...Read more
Less Is More With the 2014 Honda CBR650FNew York Times, December 16th
A few weeks before I left for a recent vacation, I bought a new cellphone to replace a four-year-old model. The new phone was loaded with an updated version of the same Android operating system, and all of my contacts and photos were copied over...Read more
Ion Audio Max LP is a Budget Friendly Versatile Record Player: ReviewChip Chick, December 16th
It supports 33 1/3, 45, and 78 RPM records, it easily connects to your computer via USB, and there is an AUX port to connect to an external audio source if so desired. The Max LP took nothing to setup—for those that want to transfer their LPs to...Read more
Bing Crosby's White ChristmasNew Jersey 101.5 FM Radio, December 13th
As you can see on my 78-rpm record, pictured at the top of the article, Crosby was supported by the Ken Darby Singers, and John Scott Trotter's Orchestra. It was released on the Decca label, July 30, 1942, as part of an album of six 78-rpm records from ...Read more
Duke Ellington's Best Album—One of the Best in Jazz—Is Also One of His Least ...Slate Magazine, December 9th
Rather than pack the extra space with more songs (an LP spinning at 331?3 revolutions per minute held about 20 minutes of music per side, compared with the three or four minutes on a 78 rpm disc), he recorded much longer arrangements—a 15-minute ...Read more
Rich Warren: Sounding off on a legend in the audio businessChampaign/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