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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Remembering Pearl HarborStanwood Camano News, December 1st
My friends, Dave and Johnny, and I were at Johnny's house, conducting a scientific experiment. You may remember the old 78-rpm records (the big black ones). We were trying to see how far we could drop one before it would break. And, of course, we had ...Read more
Tuesday's best TV: Kirstie's Handmade Christmas, Loch Lomond: A Year in the ...The Guardian, December 1st
With expert talking heads such as Paul Gambaccini, we cast back to the age of the phonograph, which captured the recordings of Enrico Caruso, through to the rise of the 78rpm disc, then the long-playing album, followed by cassettes, CDs and MP3s...Read more
Using Key Value Factors to Evaluate Vinyl RecordsClaimsJournal.com, November 30th
Does this sound like music to your ears? A rare, fully-signed copy of The Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper” LP fetched $295,500 at auction in 2013. A copy of Tommy Johnson's “Alcohol and Jake Blues” 78(rpm) sold for $37,100 the same year, and another 78, “I Can't ...Read more
Turning the tables in generation gapThe Herald Bulletin, November 30th
but that's another meme) is a tool that allows computer users to communicate with each other by sharing email, or electronic mail, pictures (these used to be recorded on Kodak film and developed at drugstores), music (which used to come in 78 rpm...Read more
New Jersey producer discovers and releases rare Sinatra recordingsNorthJersey.com, November 18th
"There was sweat dripping off of us onto the paper in the albums that we were opening, these old 78 [rpm] album binders," Granata says. "And I came across this CBS disc that said 'Sinatra-Berle, 1943' and 'De-Lovely.' I looked at Michael and said, 'Oh...Read more
Author Amanda Petrusich Documents the 78 RPM Record Collectors Who Are Saving ...Huffington Post, November 18th
But the people who will visit their record shops on Record Store Day Black Friday are probably not as fanatical compared to a certain group of real die-hard record collectors who seek out rare and vintage 78 RPM recordings, including early blues music...Read more
Oyler: Remembering family gatherings around the Victrola and 78 recordsTribune-Review, November 18th
For my brother and me, this was a special treat because we were permitted to play a set of 78 rpm records on a floor-model, hand-cranked Victrola. When we were given this special privilege, we always started with our favorites — “The Wreck of the Old...Read more
Music Journalist Chronicles The 'Wild Obsessive Hunt' For Rare 78 RPM RecordsNPR, August 11th
With almost all the music you'd ever want to listen to available online digitally, the obsessive hunt for scratchy, fragile 78 RPM records may seem anachronistic. But author Amanda Petrusich says that those early records, which hold between two and...Read more