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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Dr. Dog, Cracker, The Psychedelic Furs at Lilac Fest
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, April 1st

Vintage jazz-age band Pokey LaFarge, a big hit at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, is a good bet; The music's so authentic, they were selling 78 rpm records at the show. May 10. The Psychedelic Furs, English modern ...Read more

Ten songs that make you want to fall in love with (at?) the movies
San Diego Reader, April 1st

#A copy of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney's “Fancy Meeting You Here” resided within my folks understuffed record cabinet that also housed 78 rpm plate-mates of Rosie's “Mambo Italiano” and Kay Kyser's “Woody Woodpecker Song” in addition to a ...Read more

The Weekly interview: High on Fire frontman Matt Pike
Las Vegas Weekly (satire) (blog), April 1st

Your drummer said those wanting a taste of the new album should, “Take some mescaline [and] listen to Side B of [Black] Sabbath's Master of Reality backwards on 78 rpm.” Yeah, it's pretty f*cking awesome, man. I really like what we did on this one...Read more

Vallejo A&E Source: Roy Rogers' Empress show a tribute to late brother
Vallejo Times Herald, April 1st

Robert, a life-long Vallejoan, collected 45 and 78 rpm records. His other passions included fishing, the San Francisco Giants, playing pool, and running a landscaping business. It's the last song on Roy's new “Into the Wild Blue” album — “Song for...Read more

Diamonds in the rough: Wisconsin enjoying a golden age of high school hoops
FOXSports.com, April 1st

I was stopped -- tentatively and precariously, with one foot on the brake pedal and the other pressed onto the gas to give the car enough juice to keep it from stalling again, which would be the third time in the last half-mile, as the muffler belched...Read more

Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs to sponsor 13 free ...
news.delaware.gov, March 31st

“Play That Old-Time Country Music.” Musical program on Victor Records' early recordings of country music, accompanied by 78-rpm recordings played on authentic Victor Talking Machines Part of the History Coffee-Hour Lecture Series. The Old State House, ...Read more

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Livemint, March 9th

Ever since the late 1940s, when collectors of 78 rpm records reared their heads, an image has been formed of the stereotypical enthusiast. If you have watched the Terry Zwigoff-directed film Ghost World (starring a very young Scarlett Johansson and...Read more

Jack White to Release Elvis's First Recording
New York Times, March 8th

Third Man Records will release the recording on April 18, Record Store Day, as a 10-inch, 78-r.p.m. facsimile. Mr. White has broken a few vinyl-related records recently. On Record Store Day last year, he set the world's fastest time (3 hours, 55...Read more