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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Today's world has no use for what used to beThe Philadelphia Tribune, September 21st
For those of you who now listen to music on compact disks or CDs, there were 45, 78 and 33 1/3 RPM records my generation enjoyed. Watching television or listening to a radio, back then, often occurred in your living room where you sat on furniture...Read more
Monterey Jazz Festival stage time 'surreal' for Davina SowersMonterey County Herald, September 20th
Her mother's fourth husband, a much-older man (born in 1902), adopted her and gave her his collection of 78-rpm records, which she still plays regularly on two ancient Victrola phonographs and an Edison. "My music was influenced by everybody from ...Read more
A taste of BengalThe News on Sunday, September 20th
It was recorded by the HMV in 78 rpm disk format. With the years rolling by, 12 LPs, 4 EPs, 6 CDs and more than 20 audio cassette records were released. Her sensitivity in conveying deep feeling helped to revive the genre and made her a household name...Read more
Starting lineup breakdown for Chase race at LoudonSportingNews.com, September 19th
21. ARIC ALMIROLA, Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Ford — His engine failure last week was his first since he joined RPM in 2012. ... 78 Chevrolet — His 14th last week was his best finish in the last five races. 33. Clay Rogers, BK Racing No. 93...Read more
Trash and treasure: Rome columnist ponders garage salesWisconsin Rapids Tribune, September 19th
So it was that I dusted off my grandfather's old Victrola from the 1920s, a machine on which he listened to 78-RPM heavy-duty records of classical music until the day he died in his 90s, back in the '80s. My intention has always been to resurrect that...Read more
What's On: Music, week of September 19Rutland and Stamford Mercury, September 18th
BBC RADIO TWO'S '78 RPM BIG BAND - 7.30pm St Peter's Church, Empingham. Tickets £8 in advance from 01780 460354; 460502; 07747 697681 or £10 on the door. EASY SUNDAY MUSIC - 3-4pm, Fotheringhay Church. Vox Mondiale - a capella group...Read more
JACK'S MUSIC: 78s had much better sound qualityKeyser Mineral Daily News Tribune (blog), September 17th
It was mainly for juke boxes. The last 78 rpm juke box was made in 1952 and although the boxes could be converted to 45, many companies kept on producing 78s, and there was also a market for them as well..They were still selling reasonably well into...Read more
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 ...Under the Radar Mag, August 19th
Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price examines the esoteric nature of 78 rpm record collecting. In doing so, she travels across America to discuss collecting with the foremost collectors of the format and meets all manner of interesting...Read more