What’s an album?

What’s An Album?

album 1946 Canadian advert

She’s holding an album in this 1946 Canadian advert. An album was a collection of 78 records

An album originally was exactly that. An album with several sleeves bound together holding records. In the early days, when length was limited to a few minutes at most, any classical or operatic piece needed several discs to contain the whole thing. They were in existence by at least 1906.

In that year the Victor company introduced the Victrola, the first console designed as furniture, a console in ‘piano-finished mahogany’ that retailed for $200. In the same year, Victor’s Red Seal line had its first flowering, with Caruso and Patti heading the list.
Evan Eisenberg, ‘The Recording Angel,’ 1987

Caruso Red Seal 88801

Martha – M’appari: Enrico Caruso, Victor 1906. $3.

Red Seal records were priced like concerts. The most eminent artists were more expensive. Weird? Try getting a concert ticket to see Eagles live.

A single Caruso record was $3, but if he was duetting, it cost $4. Lesser artists were $1.50. The recordings of Rigoletto in 1907 were $7 a disc because of the large cast.

A collection of Red Seal records established one as a person of both taste and property. Along with the leather-bound sets of Dickens, Thackeray and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Victor Red Seals became a customary adjunct of the refined American parlour, to be displayed with becoming pride to impressionable guests and relations.
Ronald Gellat, The Fabulous Phonograph, 1956

They were indeed leather bound. I’ve seen sets you can hardly lift, and with the crumbling dusty leather, you wouldn’t want to give them house room. I was tempted to buy one to photograph for this article, but it had twelve thick 12″ 78s inside, so was very heavy, and smelled bad. My hands were itching instantly from book mites.

Then in 2022 I saw this one in a charity shop. Princess Ida. An album of 78s:

The set consists of ten 12″ 78 rpm shellac records and is extremely heavy. The shop’s £4 sticker is on there. I asked if I could take a photo for this article. That’s it above. So when I got home (150 miles away) I thought I’d check its date. It’s1925.

Princess Ida, 1925 Disc No 10 (of ten shellac descs)

Two references … one on Discogs, one on eBay. Both at £500. I mentioned it to a record dealer. It weighs a great deal. Shellac is extremely breakable. At that price, you could only sell it to someone willing to collect it. One cracked record, and its value has gone. Would you trust it to the mail?

Max Miller HMV copy
Max Miller Cheeky Chappie

Max Miller: The Cheeky Chappie, At The Holborn Empire, 1938
One of two 3 x 78 rpm “albums” (This one is “Portfolio 2”)

The illustrated Max Miller “Talking at 78 rpm” records were issued in 1938 in two sets of three discs each, totalling two portfolios, or twelve tracks: i.e. exactly the number envisaged when the 33 rpm 12” album was introduced by Columbia, and presented to the press in April 1948.

Kiddie Record Album 1 copy

The Kiddie Record Album (British Kodisk)contained five 6″ discs.

The original microgroove Vinylite format allowed fifteen minutes a side on a 10” disc, or 22 minutes on a 12” disc. Yes, many LPs were fifteen minutes  or less and sold on 12 inch discs, but that was a case of the market consolidating on the 12 inch format. 

The “LP” idea dates back further. Early film soundtracks were played back on discs in the Vitaphone system. In 1926, both 12 inch and 10 inch 78 rpm discs existed, but even on 12 inch a side lasted only five minutes. They needed eleven minutes, which was the playing time of each standard 35 mm film spool, and developed a 16 inch shellac disc, which played at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. This had standard “78” size grooves. Radio transcription discs survive from the 1930s and 1940s, which were also recorded on 16 inch discs, playing at 33 rpm, and these could contain fifteen minutes a side, a convenient half a thirty-minute programme.

Lore of the West front
Lore of The West inner

Lore of The West: Roy Rogers with Gabby Hayes & Trigger, RCA Victor 1949. RCA had launched the 45 format but were covering bases by continuing to issue 10″ 78 rpm albums. I’m not sure which songs Trigger sang.

An album came in a box with several discs, or was bound like a book. RCA were doing albums of 10” 78 rpm discs, then later moved to albums of 45 rpm discs.

Once they’d introduced the 45 rpm 7″ format, RCA issued “albums” or “sets” which were boxes containing several 45s. They kept that Red Seal name and pushed classical early.

Jupiter Symphony Mozart RCA album 2

Jupiter Symphony: Mozart, Arturo Toscannini. RCA Red Seal album set in 1949. Red vinyl indicated classical records.

They were concerned to give value for money. The Jupiter symphony ran to three and a half discs, so the reverse of disc four was Bach’s Air, which is not mentioned either on the cover or in the booklet.

In 1949, Vaughn Monroe’s soundtrack Silver Lining Songs ran to 3 x 45s in a box:

Silver Linings Songs

Silver Lining Songs: Vaughan Monroe and His Orchestra, three records on 7″ 45 pm discs. Musical Smart Set series

When Columbia launched its microgroove LP format, they released one hundred 10 inch and 12 inch discs, and the name album was transferred directly from the multiple single sets the public already knew. The release date coincided with the initial success of South Pacific on Broadway, and for the next dozen years, Broadway cast  and film soundtrack albums were the best-sellers on the format.

Benny Goodman combos

Benny Goodman Combos: Columbia, September 1951. An  album with four 45s. Columbia were invested in the 12″ album but put out 7″ album sets to keep up with RCA’s market view.

So early in the days of 45s, both competing companies, RCA and Columbia, issued albums which were a box of 45s. The Benny Goodman Combos in 1951 was a box with six 45s, representing a full 12 track LP.

Then RCA succumbed to the 12″ album, as designed by Columbia, and Columbia started issing 7″ 45s. The album was now a single LP, at 10″ or 12″ diameter. When excess in the 70s brought the double album and triple album, they were double albums. Not “an album with two discs.” A multi disc set, whether CD or vinyl is a “box set” never “an album.” So you might buy a box set containing several albums.