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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Oak Orchard group gets park ready for summer concertsThe Daily News Online, July 2nd
18, welcome The Brick Band, the 78 RPM Big Band and The Boomers as newcomers. Returnees The Who Dats, The Jive Street Five and The Blind Leading The Blind are part of a musical mix of classic rock, jazz, ballads, big band and contemporary rock...Read more
'The Drowsy Chaperone': Wouldn't you like to get away?Barnstable Patriot, July 2nd
The concept of “Chaperone” is that of a show within a show, as a past-middle-age man, called simply “Man in Chair” (played with shuffle, grace and humor by Simon Jones), sits in his apartment listening to a 78 rpm vinyl recording of an old musical from...Read more
FANTASY NASCAR PREVIEW Coke Zero 400 drivers to startFOXSports.com, July 2nd
78 Chevrolet team. The encouraging sign has been this driver's performance on the big ovals this season. Truex has posted eighth- and fifth-place finishes at Daytona and Talladega during his rebound campaign of 2015. Those efforts boosted his career...Read more
'The Spoils Before Dying' Review: High Dive Into the Wacky PoolWall Street Journal, July 2nd
by unappreciated on first viewing—and not only during the times your sight and hearing have been dimmed by laughter. Just the memory of Michael Sheen as the jittery gay-man-about-town Kenton Price in a spasmodic, 78-rpm dance with a cocktail...Read more
Greg Monroe expected to sign three-year, $50 million deal with Milwaukee ...Brew Hoop, July 2nd
Monroe's only obvious offensive flaw is his lack of range; though he's a good free throw shooter and made a respectable 37.2% of his midrange jumpers last year (29/78), Monroe isn't a floor-stretcher and that's one obvious reason why he simply doesn't...Read more
Business BriefsGreensboro News & Record, July 1st
This Eden business is located at 303 W. Meadow Road. They offer Victorian Era furniture, clocks, Nippon China, kitchen ware, advertising clocks and signs, 1950's jukeboxes and vintage 45 and 78 rpm records. They are open Tuesday-Saturday, ...Read more
How streaming music changed the top 40 -- and made it a little less interestingFusion, June 30th
As the physical format for music production shifted from the ten-inch 78-rpm record to the 7-inch 45-rpm in 1949, music became more and more focused on the single — one song — than on a full album. That became even more true when the iTunes store ...Read more
New Jersey museum highlights early music industryCentre Daily Times, June 27th
Regina produced a hybrid machine called Reginaphone that could play punched metal discs and 78 r.p.m. records." F.G. Otto & Sons was a very successful company that manufactured surgical instruments, medical supplies, early electric batteries and even ...Read more