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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Musical connectThe Hindu, February 28th
He released 78 rpm records of his rendition of some well-known Carnatic songs and his version of 'Ramani Samanam Evaru' (Kharaharapriya) is on YouTube. This talented musician died just outside Madras. En route to a southern destination, he felt uneasy ...Read more
ON THE RECORD: Vinyl stays in the groovePress-Enterprise, February 27th
There are two “hidden” tracks under the labels that play at 45 rpm and 78 rpm; one of the album's sides contrarily tracks the needle from the inside to the outer edge of the record. And did we mention the hologram? “Over the Christmas holiday we had...Read more
Oklahoma City Community College album jacket exhibit shows important part of ...NewsOK.com, February 27th
Those who come to the gallery can enter a drawing to win a Bessie Smith poster featuring a 78 rpm of “Downhearted Blue” from 1923. The winner will be announced March 30. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the 12-inch LP record and the 45 rpm were the major ...Read more
'Follow your passion'NewsHub.org, February 27th
Mr Ranga Rao, the descendant of Royal family of Bobbili, is known for possessing the largest collection of 78 rpm records in the world. Music scholar, dancer, film historian and critic are the other credits he has amassed in a span of seven decades. “Listening ...Read more
Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday: 100 things about the life and times of an ...cleveland.com, February 27th
"The Voice of Frank Sinatra": Sinatra's 1946 debut topped the Billboard charts. It was also one of the first concept albums, with every song about lost love. The packaging was also unique. Released as four 78 rpm discs and, two years later, as the...Read more
Logan County NewsNews-Democrat & Leader, February 26th
Do you remember candy cigarettes, cafes with tableside juke boxes, home milk delivery in glass bottles, party lines on telephones, newsreels before the movie, only three channels on the TV, peashooters, Howdy Doody, metal ice trays, 45 RPM -78 RPM - 78 ...Read more
Riviera reopens with big bandLamron, February 26th
The Geneseo Riviera Theater hosted a night of fun for the whole community on Saturday Feb. 21. The historic venue welcomed students and locals of all ages to come enjoy the cozy space and listen to the big band music that Dansville-based group 78 RPM ...Read more
Dave Barry: The Greatest (Party) GenerationWall Street Journal, February 26th
My mom, like my dad, and millions of other members of the Greatest Generation, had to contend with real adversity: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, hunger, poverty, disease, World War II, extremely low-fi 78 r.p.m. records and telephones that...Read more