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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Blues veteran CeDell Davis in Clarksdale, Holly SpringsJackson Clarion Ledger, March 4th
Mathus captures the dark, rough-hewn sound of Davis' Fat Possum releases, and the bluesman's life is illustrated through spoken tracks about playing with Tunica's Dr. Ross as a young man and listening to 78 rpm records by Charley Patton. Davis tackles ...Read more
There Are Two New Immersive Plays in L.A. One Is Magical, the Other ... Not So ...LA Weekly, March 4th
That last item comes from a soundscape (by John Zalewski) that plays through various speakers throughout the room — tinny, scratchy echoes of 78 rpm records that bleed into subliminal, ominous pulses that bleed into a radio broadcast with...Read more
Salina's Acoustic Sounds to rev up vinyl record productionKansas.com, March 4th
They had reportedly been used in the mid-1990s for bootleg 78 RPM albums for export to India, before the operation was shut down by law enforcement. Then the machines were bought in 2003 by a man who wanted to start a pressing plant, but couldn't put ...Read more
Quality Record Pressings prepares to double vinyl LP outputSalina Post, March 4th
They were last used in the mid-1990s for unauthorized or “bootleg” 78 RPM albums for export to the Indian market. They were then sold in 2003 to Joell Hays, who had always intended to renovate them to start his own pressing plant. Financing blocked his ...Read more
The Bill Miller Show | AM 1570 & FM 94.1Kndy Radio, March 2nd
The foundation for the early Wax Works shows was a collection of old 78 rpm records donated to radio station KSEK. Harbart (the station owner) and Hannes (station program director) found an instant audience for their version of nostalgia radio. The...Read more
Mozart's Attic - Thursday, March 5th at 10:00 pmwfit, March 2nd
This period encompasses some of the most primitive recording sessions imaginable to the just-pre-high-fidelity era that ended with the 78 RPM record. It also encompasses entirely or in part, the legacy of any number of "Heritage Musicians" who have...Read more
Orrin Keepnews, Record Executive and Producer of Jazz Classics, Dies at 91New York Times, March 1st
Because the original masters for most Paramount recordings proved impossible to locate, some of Riverside's early output was mastered to magnetic tape from 78 r.p.m. discs borrowed from the collection of the record producer John Hammond. Riverside ...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