78 rpm: Early Discs

LP records were cool

The very first flat disc (as against the earlier cylinders)  was a five inch diameter hard rubber creation, which didn’t really work.

Then came the seven-inch shellac disc, made by the Berliner company in 1897. While Edison had invented the phonograph, he had used cylinders as a carrier. Berliner invented the gramophone, using discs, and the first efforts ran at about 30 rpm. It was refined and though the speed was variable depending on how fast and furiously you turned the handle, they sound most in tune at about 64 rpm. Shellac was produced mainly in Malaya, and is based on a resin excreted by insects. Between 1921 and 1928 Malaya exported 18,000 tons of shellac, which produced 260 million 78 rpm discs.

Manatten Beach F2671

Manhattan Beach, The Westminster Military Band, Decca 1931, 10″ 78 rpm. Decca advertise their gramophone as “The British answer to the foreign radio set.”

Discs appeared at eight inches, ten inches and twelve inches, with ten inch playing at 78 rpm rapidly establishing itself as the default basic format from 1901. Double-sided pressings were introduced in 1904, with a playing time of up to four minutes per side. Between 1904 and 1950, RCA Victor alone sold one billion of them world wide.

The Broadcast label was owned by Vocalion, working out of Hayes, Middlesex where EMI were to be based. They advertised that their budget double-sided discs squeezed in as much information as a 12″ Shellac disc, and for only two shillings. How did they do it? You may notice a smaller than normal centre label.

Vocal Gems: Lionel Monkton Memories, Broadcast 5126, probably 1929

Because the discs were made of fragile shellac, to this day many musicians’ royalty contracts deduct 10% automatically for breakages in transit, which has not been a likely event since vinyl replaced shellac, let alone since CD replaced vinyl. Some older contracts, written for sales in “any future format” are even taking the 10% for breakages off from downloads.

Most of us have heard early shellac recordings, and if we’re honest, they usually sound like someone is wailing incoherently to the accompaniment of a blizzard or at least a good fry-up. We are, though, generally hearing records that are extremely old, and have been played and manhandled hundreds or even thousands of times. In fact with the right equipment at the right speed, an unused copy of some of these early high quality vocal recordings can sound astonishingly clear and enchanting.
Howard Goodall, Big Bangs: The Story of Five Discoveries That Changed The Musical World, 1999

TheLords Prayer F8817

The Lord’s Prayer: Gracie Fields, Decca 1948. 10″ 78 rpm. Note the box of needles are LOUD TONE, “Use once only” and came in tins of 200 needles

There’s an exaggeration in the number of plays there. The discs were played using steel needles, which wore records rapidly. They were designed to do this, so each change of needle shaved off a little more of the groove. The instructions on the packs said they should be changed every two sides of a record. Needles came in loud, medium and soft versions. With a loud needle, a disc was good for 30 plays, with a medium needle 40 plays, and with a soft needle 50 plays.

Yours Hutch BD971

Yours, ‘Hutch,’ HMV 1941. H.E. Laing, like many retailers, put discs in their own card sleeves. They were also willing to repair your bike and sold Dunlop tyres. And they were open on Sundays. Levys, who became Oriole, started business in a cycle shop.

Note that needles come in Medium, Loud or Soft Tone

Some 78s had spectacular and beautiful sleeves (see Company sleeves), but the plain brown sleeve seems more prevalent with 78s than 45s, and when looking at dusty boxes of 78s. a far greater proportion are in the wrong sleeves than 45s are. It might be just that they’ve had more years in which to get mixed up, but it’s so different in scale that I believe there was just less association with designs. Also, in the 78 rpm era, many retailers had card sleeves with their own name and advertising on them, so the association between HMV label on the disc / HMV sleeve was removed..

Shellac had to be replaced when the Japanese invaded Malaya in World War II.  So the US government produced V-discs  which were made of a forerunner of vinyl.  They were produced between 1943 and 1949. A that point the American Federation of Musicians were boycotting the four major record companies and refusing to record for them. They agreed to record for the US government as part of the war effort. on condition the records were neither sold nor broadcast within the USA. Artists included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller.

One Alone : V disc

One Alone/ Poinciana : Bing Crosby & Trudy Irwin, V – Disc, 12” 78 rpm, September 1945

The V-disc was 12” and issued by the US War Department “Music Branch: Special Services Division.” The discs were not for sale and the physical copies remained “Property of the War Department of the United States.” The 12” discs played at 78 rpm and could hold six and half minutes of music. In 1949, the US military honoured their agreement, and stocks of V-discs were destroyed. It was techically illegal to own one for many years … they have since been issued on CD.

National Salvage Campaign 1942

National Salvage Campaign: UK 1942

The 78 rpm standard for singles, once established, lasted until 1949 before the seven inch 45 rpm replacement came along, and 78 rpm was still the premier sales format till the mid-50s, finally sliding into oblivion in 1960.

Cumberland Gap Vipers

Cumberland Gap: The Vipers Skiffle Group, Parlophone 1957. 10″ 78 rpm 

The last desirable British 78 was Eddie Cochran’s Three Steps To Heaven in May 1960, and this was only available to special order. A few years ago I saw a beautiful brass horn gramophone in a Chichester charity shop window. £40. On the turntable for display was Cut Across Shorty – it’s the B-side of Three Steps To Heaven. It was pouring with rain, and the car was a long walk away. I left it, went and had a coffee opposite, and thought, ‘You’re mad! That’s a bargain’ and hurried back to the shop. It had already been sold. ‘It was only put in the window this morning,’ said the assistant.  I got home and looked up the value of the 78 record in Rare Record Guide. £400 in mint condition. This wasn’t mint, but it looked excellent at least and the original sleeve was displayed next to it. Three months later I saw what looked like the same brass horn gramophone in a London antique shop. £450. This is a site for collectors, I guess, and therein lies a warning about grabbing records when you see them.

The last major hit to have a 78 rpm version in the USA was Barrett Strong’s Money, also early 1960. India kept pressing 78s until 1964, squeezing a few Beatles’ singles in as the last 78s, a fact which has a certain neatness.

Rock n Roll Musioc Beatles 78

One of the last 78 discs. Rock & Roll Music: The Beatles. Parlophone India 78 disc. (It was advertised at £1700 on eBay)


The attraction of vinyl was unbreakability compared to shellac discs. However, 45 rpm vinyl was not the first effort at unbreakability. The Durium label in America and Britain introduced unbreakable discs in December 1929, choosing the “durable” connection, just as the London Rubber Company introduced Durex condoms, another product where unbreakability was valued. ‘Durium’ was the name of the material, invented in the 1920s, and it could be found in liquid form and sprayed onto surfaces as well as pressed.

Screenshot 2020-07-13 at 10.41.23

Auf Wiedersehen My Dear: The Durium Dance Band, Durium 1932


One More Kiss / By The Fireside, first Durium British release 1932

 Durium was originally an American label, based in New York City from 1930, with a British satellite in Slough from 1932. It was later sold to an Italian company (1936), who kept the name going from the 1950s. Durium  produced 9” flexible discs which were mounted on a card base. The point was not flexibility, but unbreakability and also they were unscratchable. They were pressed on brown plastic and played at 78 rpm.  They were advertised as ‘the self-changing record’ a misleading claim … they simply had both tracks on one side. One innovation, was printing the name of the record on the sleeve, instead of using generic company sleeves. Some have a picture of the artist on the reverse of the cardboard backing.

As far as I can see the British recordings were either credited to The Durium Dance Band, The Durium Revellers or by The Durium Orchestra. They pre-dated the 50s budget labels, and covered the hits on a weekly basis, with a Hit Of The Week every Friday. The British ones were arranged by Lew Stone and included Al Bowley, and on US ones, the Harlem Hot Chocolates was Duke Ellington’s band in disguise. Eddie Cantor and Gene Austin both recorded for Durium

Their outlet was newsstands rather than traditional retailers. A 1930 article from Baltimore says they were stamped out 100 times faster than shellac discs and were unbreakable. The total production cost was 5 cents per disc. They could be sold in Britain for a shilling and in the USA for fifteen cents, which was a third of the cost of normal releases.