Guide To Collecting 78 RPM Records by Lorne Van Sinclair (courtesy vibrations.ca)


1_abbott78Of all the record formats, 78s invoke the most passion among collectors. 78s can be the most difficult, and the most rewarding, records to collect.

For 50 years the 10 inch 78 RPM disc was the standard format for records in North America and Europe. In 1901 the Berliner flat disc beat out the Edison cylinder to become the medium by which popular songs were distributed to the masses. It ruled supreme until 1948 when the 45 and LP were introduced, but it took 10 more years before it was completely phased out. It’s safe to say the 78 disc recorded, and in fact is largely responsible for, one of the most fascinating periods in American popular music.

Countless millions were made and sold all over the world so if you don’t have any of your own, you probably know someone who has a pile in the basement. That person probably thinks of them as either a bunch of junk or valuable beyond belief just because they’re old. The key to collecting or selling them is discrimination, so whether you’re interested in starting your own collection or would just like some idea of what to do with that pile, it helps to know a bit about their history and why people collect them.

Why would anyone want a scratchy old 78?

Nostalgia is the reason many people start, they go looking for original copies of the music of their youth, which are often easy to find, but then they get the bug. Records have all the right ingredients to keep collectors interested, there’s an infinite variety of things on which to base a collection. Music fans naturally like to own an original copy of a musical masterpiece. 78s also have a strong emotional pull beyond simple nostalgia, that’s because listening to music on original 78s is a great experience, quite different from listening to the same music on an LP or CD.

The LP, like the modern CD, is designed to provide more passive entertainment, it plays in the background while you do something else. You may hear many great songs but you often don’t remember them all later. The single record however, demands your attention. It’s only 3 minutes long so, like a baby, it has to be changed often. You can’t do anything else but listen to it, so you experience the music much more intensely. When you take a single out of it’s sleeve, read (perhaps admire) the label, place it on the turntable, hear the “clunk” of the needle hitting the first groove, then that glorious sound comes out, you don’t ever forget it.

Now wait, I hear you say, “glorious sound”? Aren’t 78s scratchy and tinny sounding? Not necessarily. Quite simply, a well-recorded 78 that’s made of good, low-noise material that hasn’t been worn or scratched, sounds stunning when played on the right equipment. That’s a whole lotta factors to come together, but it happens.

How to play them

The equipment you use to play a record is important. A novice might be tempted to “use the player it was designed for” but that’s not always a good idea.

Old gramophones, with their heavy arms and throw-away needles, destroy records quickly. Unfortunately, so do classic juke boxes. The same is generally true for “record players”, those all-in-one units, popular in the 1940s and 50s, with an amplifier and speaker that sounded so bad you couldn’t tell the record was being plowed up like a turnip field every time that cast iron tone arm was dragged across it.

Better to use a more modern turntable, they’re easy to find, the trick is to get one with a 78 speed and a good needle. If you have to tape a quarter on the end of the tone arm to keep the needle in the groove, then it’s probably worn out and is destroying your records. It’s critical to clean the needle gently using a cotton swab and alcohol then examine it carefully before using it. Look at it with a small microscope or at least a strong magnifying glass. Most garden-variety needles have a horizontal shank. There should be a ball at the end on one side, that’s the tip. If it’s one of those flip LP/78 needles, there will be one on each side of the shank and the 78 tip should be obviously bigger than the LP tip. Make sure the tip looks smooth, even, and rounded. There may be some flat wear marks on the side, that’s OK, but if it’s chipped or shaped like a chisel, don’t use it. Next look at the shank. Cheaper ones usually rest on a piece of rubber, more expensive ones just float. Make sure it isn’t bent or broken. There should be some ‘spring’ to it and the tip should point straight down.

At the very least, the turntable should have a light tone arm with some kind of counterweight at the back, better if it’s adjustable. An old clunker, even a record player, is fine if you’re just starting or as a tester for scratchy records, but for maximum enjoyment you’ll want a good turntable that can handle a high-end, light-weight magnetic cartridge. You can usually find one second-hand quite cheaply, but the needle can be a problem.

With the current revival of vinyl there are now quite a few companies making turntables again. It’s still difficult to fine one that plays 78s but they’re around. Stanton is one company that makes quite a few. Don’t be alarmed if they don’t have a “78” speed button, modern turntables are digital and it just so happens that 33 and 45 add up to 78 so if you press both speed buttons at the same time – voila! you’ve got 78. (I still find it amazing, who planned that?)

Many of the best cartridge manufacturers still make styli (at this price they’re not needles anymore) for 78s but they often cost hundreds of dollars so it’s worth the effort to search out a good one in a trade or a deal. Even if it’s worn out, there are companies in California and Britain that repair them for a reasonable price.

What to look for

Music is a matter of personal taste so the best thing to do if you’re starting out is to buy whatever looks interesting to you as long as they’re cheap, play them, decide what you like, then go look for more. It’s an inexpensive and fun way to educate yourself in music. Eventually you find your niche, your own personal take on things. Most people base their collections on a musical style or era, certain personalities, or even labels. In 1970, I decided to concentrate on black gospel recordings strictly for their musical value. Almost no one else was buying them at the time so it was relatively easy to acquire a world-class collection that’s increased dramatically in value over the years. However you don’t collect records to get rich, prices are unpredictable and it’s often hard to sell a record collection. If you enjoy what you collect, you can’t go wrong.

Although values can get into hundreds, even thousands of dollars, only a very small percentage of 78s are worth much money. It’s the same as the market for anything, what’s important is supply, demand, and condition. Age is not a factor. Generally, the more popular a record was when it was first released, the less chance it has value for collectors now. There isn’t room in this whole magazine to adequately discuss prices so let’s just look at roughly what’s out there, how to date them, and what types might be interesting or valuable. Remember, this is just a rough guide so there are exceptions to everything.

One thing you’ll find a lot is classical recordings. While there are highly specialized collectors looking for rare discs, (vocal performances on obscure labels often), most instrumental classical 78s that you find have little or no value. Millions were sold in “albums” during the 1940s and 50s, and like encyclopedias, they mostly sat on the shelf and now take up more room than they’re worth. Buy them cheap for your own personal enjoyment if you wish, but don’t expect much if you try to sell them.

Occasionally, you’ll turn up a few “picture discs” where the grooves were pressed into clear plastic over what was usually a cartoon-like drawing that covered the entire record. The Vogue Picture Record Co. of Detroit made a whole series that was very popular and are prized by collectors today because they look good on display. Vogues usually sell for between $30 and $60, some rare ones might be higher. Picture discs made by other companies, including RCA Victor, are rarer and can fetch quite a premium. So-called “kiddie” picture discs abound, some plastic, some made of cardboard, that contain children’s songs or Mother Goose rhymes. They are very colourful and the collector market for them is still in it’s infancy so to speak, so you can buy them cheaply. That might be a good place to start an interesting and potentially valuable collection if you just like to look at them.

Historical perspective

Collectors divide all 78s into two general categories, pre-war and post-war. 1942 is the dividing line, when there was a bitter musician’s strike and a subsequent recording ban that stopped all record production for about a year. Most collectors restrict themselves to one or the other category, so lets take a brief look at each separately.

Pre-war records are divided into electrical and acoustic recordings. In the beginning records were made the same way they were played back, with a horn. No microphones or amplifiers were involved so to most of us they sound more like a telephone than a record. Better sounding “electrical recordings” were introduced in 1925, though they were not identified as such on the label because the companies were afraid nobody would buy their old acoustic recordings, which remained for sale well into the 1930s.

The size of the label can help you determine the approximate age. Before 1935 or so they were usually larger, 3½ inches across as opposed to 3 inches on later records. Another way is to look at the lead-in and lead-out grooves. Before 1923 there were none, you have to push the needle onto the playing surface. Automatic changers were introduced in 1923 and an inner groove was added that would make the tone arm oscillate back and forth to trip the mechanism. The earliest records, before 1920, only had music on one side, sometimes with a pattern on the other side. Ironically, that pattern, especially “His Master’s Voice” logos, make those records desirable as display items because more often than not, the music is boring.

During most of the pre-war era, a few large and powerful corporations, Victor, Columbia, Decca and some others, dominated the industry completely. There were many other small companies, but most were either squeezed out or bought up and turned into subsidiary labels. The majors pretty well decided on their own what music was made available and most of it isn’t very exciting to the modern listener. These companies did record some jazz along with “race” and “hillbilly” artists, but considered them to be novelties, they didn’t really understand the music or distribute the records well. This, along with the Great Depression and the fact that many records were melted down in the 1940s for the war effort, means that recordings from the 1930s of what we now consider to be the best music of the era are often very rare. Collectors sometimes have to settle for worn, scratched or poorly made copies which have a background noise that British discographer Brian Rust describes as “frying bacon beside Niagara” but if you find a clean copy, even the acoustic recordings can sound wonderful.

Big dance bands, swing, and pop vocal records from this era are relatively common and not usually valuable. Spoken word, opera, personality, and show tunes are collected, but the big market is for jazz, boogie woogie, “hot” string bands (western swing) and early “field recordings” of blues, hillbilly, and gospel performers which were mostly sold in the southern U.S. Prices vary from almost nothing for a common pop recording to hundreds of dollars for rare jazz to thousands of dollars for say, a 1933 Robert Johnson blues record.

Post-war 78s are quite different. After the war technology and plastics improved, the major companies re-tooled, which meant a dramatic improvement in sound quality. More importantly, their cast-off machinery was bought by savvy entrepreneurs who started their own little companies. “Indies”, as they were called, recorded the music of the street, to sell in their own neighbourhoods. They nurtured and popularized Chicago blues, rock-a-billy, be-bop jazz, country & western, do-wopp harmony, bluegrass, gospel, R & B and eventually, the early part of rock ‘n’ roll (some say the only good part). Many of them like Atlantic, Mercury, MGM, and Capitol are corporate giants now and they, along with hundreds, maybe thousands of other indies, made the post-war 78s that collectors are looking for. The best known include Sun, Chess/Checker, Chance, Specialty, Modern and Peacock. Perry Como may have sold more back then, but Muddy Waters and Hank Williams records are worth a lot more today.

Juke box collectors have triggered a great demand for rock ‘n’ roll 78s, which are also very popular overseas. Prices easily go $30 and up but condition is critical – worn ones are common, unplayed ones are rare. They’re somewhat less rare in Canada, where we kept the 78 format a bit longer. The rule of thumb for R & R 78s is, the later the better. It’s widely believed that 1958 was the last year for production in the U.S. but I’ve seen some from 1959. In Canada, some exist from 1960, though they’re very scarce. Word has it that the first Beatles records were released on 78s in Pakistan, but the labels aren’t written in English. Of course Elvis Presley 78s always command a premium and some exist only as Canadian pressings.

Where to look

Most of you will have seen many at flea markets and the like, you can find some real treasures almost anywhere, and you’ll find different types of music in different parts of the continent. There are still some collector shops and used record stores that carry them. And of course, there’s always the good old Record Show. Not all shows have dealers with 78s, many now are rock oriented, but you can usually find at least some 78s at most shows.

There are magazines that cater to record collectors and feature tons of records for sale by private dealers. The biggest now being Goldmine. There are also quite a number of records sold by mail-in auction. These are usually for experienced collectors only as you have to write in a bid based on a written description – not for the faint of heart. One of the best auction lists for old time blues, country & gospel, both pre-war and post-war comes from Doug Seroff of Greenbriar Tenn.

Of course, eBay has become one of the best resources for record collectors in the past ten years. You’ll find more records there – often at very reasonable prices – than just about anywhere else. The problem with getting 78s this way – either on-line or mail-in auctions – is they are very difficult, and therefore expensive, to ship. Mail-in auctioneers are usually very experienced and they usually send many records in bulk, by surface mail. On eBay you’re often buying one at a time which makes them more pron the breakage and many of the sellers are less than careful with their shipping. The problem is even worse for buyers in Canada as our domestic postage rates are high and U.S. sellers tend to charge a premium to ship out of the country. For eBay sales you want to carefully scan the sellers’ feedback and expect to pay a high cost, so make sure the record is worth it. That being said, there does seem to be a lot of eBay sellers posting 78s for literally pennies, you can get lucky.

Otherwise just dig around, once people find out you collect them, you will probably be offered tons of stuff you don’t want. Just be patient, wade through them, and most of all, enjoy yourself.

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