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.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Sun Records Discography
Association of Vogue Picture Record Collectors
The Remington Site
Clubs & Associations
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: 78 Records
Source: Google News
Johnny Cash Museum, Nashville: Remembering the Man in BlackTelegraph.co.uk, April 23rd
Vintage ticket stubs abound, alongside the best of Cash's trademark Man in Black stage outfits, his many guitars and examples of 78rpm singles and 8-track cartridges. There are posters too, for shows you would love to have seen: how about Johnny Cash, ...Read more
Vinyl fans turn tables on progressNew Zealand Herald, April 22nd
My parents lived and breathed music - as young marrieds they bought a piano before they bought a lounge suite - and in the living room of my childhood were big cabinets full of operas on 78rpm records (the Ring of the Nibelungen would have taken...Read more
Who is Richie Brockelman, private eye?A.V. Club Denver/Boulder, April 22nd
8-track, compact cassette, compact disc (this one multiple times, considering its myriad reissues), and MP3—and yet only the true collector would know where to look to find 78 rpm recordings of the old blues numbers covered by the Mac's original...Read more
Organic Flamenco from ManchesterWorld Music Central, April 21st
North West jazz over the last 20 years. Matt has a huge sound on tenor, an equally full sound on flute and a flowing melodic playing style. Matt plays in his own trio, is a noteworthy session player, vintage 78rpm DJ, a promoter, and runs Matt...Read more
Record Store Day surfs vinyl revival waveYahoo!7 News, April 21st
Director Alex Steyermark's movie The 78 Project, which captures musicians such as Victoria Williams and Ben Vaughn making 78 rpm discs on a 1930s Presto recorder, premiered at the South By Southwest Film festival in March. In July, Amanda Petrusich's ...Read more
Spending Record Store Day With Jack White, the Holiday's Living EmbodimentFlavorwire, April 21st
If I come across one that seems to be at a price that makes sense, I'll sometimes purchase an old blues 78 [rpm] not really for me to have it, to own it, I just sort of want it to not get broken or fall into the wrong hands, or get lost. I feel like...Read more
Alan Freed Is Spinning At 78 R.P.M.Esquire (blog), April 17th
I have been remiss in not commenting on the fascinating piece in Tiger Beat On The Potomac this morning about the financial arrangements between various conservative sugar daddies and the radio stars of the far right, which is further proof that Ken...Read more
Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest ...Pitchfork Media, April 17th
Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records. This excerpt from Amanda Petrusich's forthcoming book tells the unlikely story of eccentric record collector Harry Smith, and how his Anthology of American Folk...Read more