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.

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]

317X

317X

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]

Mybeatles.net

Mybeatles.net

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    

Television Personalities 14th Floor / Oxford St Teen'78 Og Uk St 7" Srtscus MintRace Victor V-38514 Clifford Hayes Louisville Stompers-frog Hop (chicago '28) E+Sleepy John Estes Champion 50001 Blues 78 Rpm Record E+/n- File CopyBlues 78, Sonny Boy Nelson & John Estes On Bluebird 7849, E-David Bowie-hunky Dory-uk-1971-orig-rca Victor Sf 8244-lyric Insert-very Nice Ex"funny Paper" Smith The Howling Wolf Vocalion 1664 Blues 78 Rpm Record V/v+Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues + So Doggone Lonesome 10" 78rpm Sun Records 232Lot Of 7 Vintage 10" 78 Rpm Records - Elvis Presley Hits - 1950's-60's EraBo Carter Bluebird 6659 Blues 78 Rpm Record E-/eTampa Red & Georgia Tom Vocalion 1699 Blues 78 Rpm Record EBlues 78, Sleepy John Estes On Decca 7789, Ee-Patsy Cline - Decca 78 Rpm - Walkin After MidnightJazz 78, Wolverine Orchestra On Gennett 5565, V78 Quarterly No.1 & 2 "silver Anniversary Issue" 78 Rpm Fettish Magazine Pre-warBlues 78, St. Louis Bessie On Vocalion 1559, E+78 Rpm -- Tampa Red, Vocalion 02774, E-v+ Blues (guitar Solos)Kokomo Arnold Decca 7267 Blues 78 Rpm Record ESuperior 2615 V Charleston Sacred Quartette 78 Rpm Gennett Country HillbillyParamount 12564 Elmo Tanner V++ 78 Rpm Pre War Race Series The Crickets With Buddy Holly "that'll Be The Day" 78 Rpm 1957 Brunswick Vg++Casey Bill Weldon Vocalion 03330 Blues 78 Rpm Record E+Junked Paramount 78 Rpm Ma Rainey 12374 Bessemer Bound Blues Possible Test?Rhino Records Box Set,jukebox Classic, "vol #4", With Lables 78's JukeboxBlues 78 Texas Star Talent 806 Willie Lane Little Brother 78 Record Fibre Needle Cutter And A Packet Of Hall Fibre NeedlesThe Crickets Buddy Holly "fool's Paradise" + "think It Over" 78 Rpm 1958 Vg++Ultra Rare South African Roy Orbison 78 Rpm Crying / Candy ManHot Victor 23037 Bennie Moten K.c. Orch. Spanish Stomp (chicago 1929) E+ Beauty!Gospel Blues 78, Rev. E. W. Clayborn On Vocalion 1221, E-Elvis - Rca 6380 That's All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky 78 RpmCountry 78, Dixon Brothers On Bluebird 6441, Ee-The Crickets Buddy Holly Raining In My Heart + It Doesn't Matter Anymore 78 Rpm Johnny Cash "hey Porter" + "cry! Cry! Cry!" 78 Rpm Rockabilly Quality 1958 Vg+Rhino Records Box Set,jukebox Classic, "the Sixties", With Lables 78's JukeboxCharlie Poole-the North Carolina Ramblers 78rpm- 15116Ultra Rare South African Roy Orbison 78 Rpm Only The LonelyDavid Bowie – Young Americans ~ 1st Press - 1975 Rca VictorE. Berliner's Gramophone No. 8017 "the President’s March" By Victor Herbert’s22Ray Noble Al Bowlly Victor 24700 Midnight The Stars And YouPete Peetie Wheatstraw Bluebird 5626 Blues 78 Rpm Record V+The Flamingos On Parrot Label - Dream Of A Lifetime - Rare! 78rpmRodney Harris (w/ Dave Bartholomew) Blow Your Top 78rpm Imperial 1950 Russian:alexander Wertinsky Sings Marlene Dietrich Classic:jonny Parlophon 78 Sundown Playboys 78rpm "10" SingleBerliner 7 Inch 78 Rpm Record GramaphoneBig Bopper / Chantilly Lace / Uk 78 Rpm/ Mercury Amt 1002Country 78, Dixon Brothers On Bluebird 7020, E-Elvis Presley Hound Dog B/w Don't Be Cruel 10" 78rpm 1956 Lieber-stollerRare Green Filmophone Flexi Regency D.orch. 78 " I'm A Ding Dong Daddy " #221 VgRhino 1980s 78 Rpm Jukebox Classics Collectable Boxed SetMoney Honey / One Sided Love Affair Elvis Presley Rca Victor 1956 78 NiceElvis - Rca 6382 Milkcow Blues Boogie/you're A Heartbreaker 78 RpmArthur "big Boy" Crudup 78 " Mean Old 'frisco Blues " Us Bluebird 34-0704 V+/ex-Johnny Cash Sun 78 Rpm 296 Russian:alexander Wertinsky Sings Sarasate Konzert Parlophon 78Rare Jack Scott "leroy" + "my True Love" 78 Rpm Rockabilly 1958 Carlton Vg++Charlie Poole (1926) The North Carolina Ramblers-78 Rpm-15160 Decca Jack Kapp-bing Crosby-connie Boswell "deccaspeech" Private Record 78 Rpm V-disc 335 Judy Garland Over The Rainbow (wizard Of Oz) 78 Rpm EElvis Presley "hard Headed Woman" 78 Rpm Shiny E Cond.

Recent News: 78 Records

Source: Google News

The Case of the Mystery Ringing
Radio World, February 9th

The specifications for a Class C line were 200–3,500 Hz, barely better than the frequency response of an acoustic 78 RPM record. It turned out that “for the time being” meant until the inauguration of the new satellite feed in 1980. From day one, the...Read more

Happy Accident: NZCA Lines
Clash Magazine, February 9th

Since the current fad of 'recorded' music began, it's pretty much impossible to separate music from the technology used to produce it and distribute it. From the running time of 78rpm records arguably creating our concept of the 'perfect' three minute...Read more

India's Salon Secularists Sing The Same Old Song
Swarajya, February 9th

To make things worse, it is now coming from an utterly down-at-heels record player, a venerable 78 rpm manual gramophone. Even the logo is hardly traceable on the instrument. All this doesn't seem to bother the impresarios, who now insist that you...Read more

Record collection to be showcased at World War 1 era event Wednesday
Hastings Tribune, February 8th

Dr. Harry Salyards will share his personal collection of original 78 RPM records in a program that will include morale-boosting songs, stirring marches and songs used for propaganda. Selections will include “Let's All Be Americans Now,” It's a Long Way...Read more

DJ tour kicks it old school, spinning vinyl from resort to resort
Whistler Question, February 8th

He's known for playing sets entirely with 7-inch, 45-rpm records. The records were introduced in 1949 by RCA as smaller, more durable counterparts to the 78 rpm shellac discs. There's something soulful about vinyl, Arkwell said. As a kid he spent...Read more

The DIY Musician: 1917 Film on 'The Making of a Ukulele,' Plus Free DIY Uke Plans
Guitar World Magazine, February 8th

Hawaiian music legend Henry Kailimai appears at the end, performing with his own uke. Unfortunately, this was a silent film, so all we see is his cheery face and flailing fingers. The accompanying music in the film is edited music from old 78-rpm...Read more

Recent skull cinema features
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

'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