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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Ralph Peer: Mogul led way to rock music
Columbus Dispatch, December 20th

A quiet, introspective, ambitious lad born in 1892 in Independence, Mo., Peer grew up working in his father's sewing-machine store, which also sold newfangled “talking machines” (record players) and 78 rpm records. By the time he was 11, Peer was...Read more

Jim Krall, dad of Diana, remembered fondly
Nanaimo Daily News, December 20th

Krall had a long-time passion for music and was an avid collector of 78 rpm records, gramophones, cylinder players and vintage sheet music, and played in many bands when younger. Adella Krall, Jim's wife, died in 2002, but Sinclair said his daughters, ...Read more

Irish Lives: Bryan Rooney master fiddler and 'Godfather' of traditional music
Irish Times, December 19th

Jack Rooney had been a fiddler, but Bryan's introduction to music came through the old 78rpm records bought by his mother, Mary, who didn't play herself “but was always humming a tune”. “It was great craic,” he says of his upbringing . “There were...Read more

Guaranteed: A “reactionary, bourgeois” good time
Durham Herald Sun, December 18th

Oh boy, another brick!” The band will play music from parts that Peppler transcribed, both from 78 rpm records, libraries, and YouTube. “There were some fanatic collectors in Poland who are putting their amazing collections of tango online,” Peppler said...Read more

Elvis Presley's earliest recording to be auctioned at Graceland, December 18th

MUMBAI: The first known recording by Elvis Presley will be put up for auction in January 2015, and is expected to fetch anywhere between $75,000 and $100,000. According to reports, the record is a 78 rpm acetate that was recorded in August 1953, when ...Read more

Jack White's top-selling 'Lazaretto' unique in every way
San Francisco Examiner, December 18th

And underneath the Side A label in the center, a hidden song can be played at 78 rpm. On Side B, the label trick is done again, but the music can be heard only at 45 rpm. Combined with the record's 33 rpm playing speed, "Lazaretto" uses three different ...Read more

Bing Crosby's White Christmas
New 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