78-RPM Records Were Prized, Delicate Possessions

Youngsters who find an old record player at an antique store, auction or flea market may be puzzled to discover four turntable speeds: 16, 33.3, 45 and 78 revolutions per minute (rpm).

Older folks will recall the awful day their favorite 78-rpm record was broken. My much-played non-replaceable disc, a long forgotten cowboy singer on the Coral label, met its demise when a neighborhood friend accidentally sat on it. I was so distraught I couldn’t sleep that night, realizing that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” could not put that delicate 10-inch record together again. I was devastated.

These old records were made of shellac, a natural resin secreted by the lac insect and had the consistency of a fragile china plate – thick, heavy and highly breakable. They cracked and chipped easily. Most folks continued playing a favorite damaged record, even with its annoying pop that occurred with each revolution. Some records were played so frequently that the center hole became enlarged, causing the record to rotate on the turntable in a distorted jerky motion.

Record needles, resembling slightly refined nails, usually sold 25 to a pack for a quarter. Manufacturers suggested replacing them after about 12 plays, warning consumers that failure to do so could result in damage to their prized discs. I ignored such admonitions, opting instead to plop one in only when I detected a drop in audio quality.  

Many of the old record players had “changers” on them, allowing a stack of records to play automatically. A two-record set would have sides 1 and 4 located on the first record and 2 and 3 on the second. Side 1 would be placed on the changer spindle first, facing upward. In like fashion, side 2 would be placed on top of the first record. The unit’s stabilizing arm would then be placed over the top record. Once both records played, the listener would remove them from the changer, flip the stack over and place them back on the spindle, allowing sides 3 and 4 to play.

Radio disc jockeys “cued” a record for instant play by placing it on the turntable, rotating it by hand until sound was detected at the needle and reversing it about a quarter turn.

As record formats changed, their producers began issuing records utilizing both formats. There was a time when 78s and 45s were manufactured for the same recording and artist; the same was true for 45s and multi-selection 33.3s. Unfortunately, a few 78s ended up in carnival sideshows, where people threw balls at them to win prizes. Fortunately, many records survived by being stored in attics, basements, garages and closets.

Old records became good sources of history. Vernon Dalhart, in the early part of this century, regularly recorded tragedy songs ranging from the Titanic sinking in 1912 to Floyd Collins’ untimely death in a Kentucky coal mine in 1925. A visit to an antique store often reveals these nearly extinct tube model record players sitting idly in a corner, not having been played for decades, missing a needle, often without power and seemingly begging to perform again.

Sadly, these dusty relics of yesteryear have had their day in the big spotlight of progress. Except for a few avid collectors, their time has come and gone.