The Legacy of Shellac 78 RPM Records

Shellac 78 RPM records, often simply referred to as 78s, date back to the late 19th and early 20th century. They’re an integral part of the lineage of sound recording formats, alongside their successors, vinyl LPs and compact discs.

The Birth of the 78 RPM Record

Emile Berliner’s invention of the gramophone in the 1890s was the catalyst for the widespread production of shellac records. The name “78 RPM” was coined due to the rotational speed of approximately 78 revolutions per minute. However, it’s worth noting that this speed was not universally consistent, with some records playing at slightly different speeds.

Shellac was the primary material used because of its hardness, allowing for a relatively high level of detail in the groove, and its wide availability. The discs were made by pressing a mixture of shellac, a natural resin, and other fillers into a disc-shaped mold.

Significance in the Music Industry

The 78s were transformative. They became the first widely accepted medium for commercial music distribution.

Bridging Global Sounds

One of the most significant contributions of the 78s was the introduction of a global audience to sounds from far-off places. Previously, many forms of music remained confined to their geographical origins. With the mass production and distribution capabilities of the 78s, sounds from around the world were accessible to anyone with a gramophone.

Pioneering Artists and Genres

Many of the foundational artists in genres like jazz, blues, and country made their debuts on 78 RPM records. Legends like Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey, and Louis Armstrong released some of their most iconic works on this format. These records thus played a pivotal role in shaping the musical landscape of the 20th century.

Technical Aspects and Limitations

Groove Width and Sound Quality

The grooves on a 78 RPM record were wider than those found on later vinyl records. This meant that only around 3 to 5 minutes of music could be stored on each side of a 10-inch record. Despite this limitation, the groove width provided a particular sound characteristic, with a certain warmth and rawness, appealing to many enthusiasts.

Durability

Shellac records were fragile. Dropping a 78 could result in it shattering, unlike later vinyl records, which might merely warp or scratch. The material’s brittleness meant that collectors and enthusiasts had to handle these records with extreme care.

The Decline and Legacy

By the 1950s, the 78s began to see a decline in popularity. The emergence of the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl LP and the 45 RPM single provided listeners with longer playtimes and improved durability.

Resurgence Among Collectors

Though they became less common for everyday listening, 78 RPM records never disappeared entirely. Collectors, music historians, and enthusiasts recognized their value, not only for their unique sound but also for their historical significance.

Today, there’s a thriving market for 78s, especially those that feature rare recordings or are in mint condition. Some collectors are driven by nostalgia, while others seek out these records for their distinctive sound quality.

Cultural Contributions

Several contemporary music projects have sourced from 78 RPM records, introducing new generations to the sounds of the past. These projects offer a testament to the timeless appeal of the music and the unique tonal qualities of the format.


The 78 RPM record, while no longer a mainstream format, has left an indelible mark on the world of music. Its role in shaping the early music industry and bringing global sounds into homes around the world is undeniable. The distinct sonic texture of the 78s, combined with their historical significance, ensures that they will remain cherished artifacts for generations to come.

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