As a collector in several diverse fields, I thought I’d share a few thoughts and tips on a few fields outside of coins, which is not only my hobby, but my profession as well.

Early sound recordings have always fascinated me. In fact, before I can even remember, at the age of 2 or 3, my parents told me that I spent hours in my room sorting and listening to my collection of little yellow 78-rpm records. We really don’t change much, do we?

Anyway, enough about me. On to collecting records.

Sound Recordings Can Be Broken Down Into Five Major Categories

  1. Cylinder recordings – made from the early 1890s though the late 1920s
  2. 78-rpm disc recordings – made from the late 1890s through the late 1950s
  3. 45-rpm disc recordings – made from 1949 through the early 1990s
  4. 33 1/3 rpm albums – made from 1948 through today, but largely replaced by the CD by the late 1980s and early 1990s
  5. CDs – made from 1982 through today, though sound files have largely supplanted them

Now, we’ll take a closer look at each of these five categories, and look at the major subcategories in each.

1. Cylinder Records

Cylinder records were really the first form of recorded music widely available to the public. While Edison invented the phonograph in late 1877, it used tinfoil as a recording medium, and recordings could not be removed, and used on another machine. It was not until improvements using a wax coated tube by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter in the mid 1880s that recording sound for replay at a later date became possible. Edison returned to work on the phonograph in during this period as well, and by the end of the decade, early wax cylinders containing music began to be sold.

Cylinder records were really the first form of recorded music widely available to the public. Click To Tweet

The content most often found on cylinders consists of band pieces, comic monologues, instrumental solos and popular vocal songs of the day. Classical orchestral music was difficult to record, especially by larger ensembles. Some operatic pieces were made, though they were not popular. After about 1910, cylinders were increasingly bought by rural folk, while the more urban types preferred the discs.

Cylinder Records Can Be Broken Down Into Four Categories 

  • Brown Wax cylinders – the earliest types, made from roughly 1889 through 1901: These were recorded individually, or copied one at a time from a master recording. They vary widely in quality, are very fragile and subject to mold and mildew. They are generally worth $25 and up.
  • 2-minute Black Wax cylinders: A method for mass-producing cylinders came into use around 1902. These cylinders were harder and more durable, and were black in color. They had a two-minute playing time and were made through around 1910. They are worth $5 and up.
    Edison Cylinder Record, circa 1905
    Edison cylinder record, circa 1905
  • 4-minute Black Wax cylinders: In late 1908, Edison introduced a cylinder with double the amount of grooves per inch (200 instead of 100). This effectively doubled the playing time to four minutes. They were called “Amberol” records, and were made from 1908 through 1912. They remained rather fragile and subject to wear.
  • 4-minute Blue Amberol cylinders: In 1912, Edison began using a new, much harder substance for his cylinders. They were made largely of celluloid, and colored a rich shade of blue. Their wearing qualities were much improved, and they were also far more difficult to break or damage. They were made from 1912 through 1929, although their popularity declined sharply by the late 1910s. They can usually be bought for $3 or more.
“78s” were the recorded format of choice for the first half of the 20th century. Click To Tweet

2. 78-rpm Disc Records

Invented by Emile Berliner in the late 1880s, they came to market in the mid-1890s, but did not achieve widespread popularity until the Victor Talking Machine Company heavily promoted them in the mid 1900s. In production for nearly sixty years, “78s” were the recorded format of choice for the first half of the 20th century. They were made in a few different sizes, most often 10” and 12” in diameter, though early on, 7” discs were popular.

The 78-rpm Era Is Divided Into Two Main Divisions

First came the Acoustic Era, roughly 1900 to 1925. During this period, recordings were made without electricity, with the singers or instruments playing into a large horn, which focused the incoming sound onto the recording stylus. The sound they were able to achieve without any electricity is amazing at times.

Berliner record – one of the first disc records, circa 1898

The second 78-rpm era is the Electrical Era, roughly 1925-1950. The microphone came to the studio in 1925, allowing louder and better recordings to be made, as well as the ability to record larger groups such as full symphony orchestras.

Berliner Record – one of the first disc records, circa 1898
Victor 78-rpm record, circa 1936

The content found on 78-rpm records is vast, and encompasses all genres of recorded music for the first half of the 20th century. In the earlier periods, vocal and instrumental solos were popular, due to the constraints of the acoustic recording system. By the late ’20s and ’30s, symphonic works came into vogue as well as larger dance bands.

Beginning in the early and mid 1920s, jazz and blues began to come into vogue, and some of the most desirable 78-rpm records are from small labels recording the early blues artists. For the most part, classical music and big band recordings from the ’30s and ’40s have relatively little value. Towards the end of the 78-rpm era, (late 1940s and early 1950s) rhythm and blues (R&B) gained popularity, and those records are fairly desirable.

3. 45-rpm Disc Records

The 7” “45” (with the large center hole) was originally intended to replace all records. RCA Victor introduced them in early 1949, and offered all genres, including symphonies (in box sets) for the new format. While they were smaller and lighter than the older 78s, their roughly 5-minute playing time still required frequent changing of sides. It soon became evident that the 45-rpm format was ideal for “hit singles” while longer works were better suited to Columbia’s 33 1/3-rpm LP, which had been introduced the previous year.

The “45” was in vogue from the early 1950s through the late 1980s, and many of the great singles enjoyed during the golden age of Rock and Roll appeared on 45s. While most 45s are not worth much, there are some four and even five-figure records out there. Most of these are from the more obscure groups from the 1950s on the lesser known labels.

 RCA Victor 45-rpm record ca. 1950
RCA victor 45-rpm record, circa 1950

4. 33 1/3 LPs

In 1948, Columbia Records introduced their new long playing record. Developed by Peter Goldmark, it appeared (like 78s) in both a 10” as well as a 12” size. Because each side could play for nearly half an hour, it quickly became the ideal format for longer works (classical) and collections of songs from a particular artist (album).

 Columbia 33 1/3 rpm LP Record, circa 1960
Columbia 33 1/3-rpm LP record, circa 1960

While the 45 and 33 1/3 records initially competed, in 1950, RCA and Columbia agreed to cross-license their respective products, and the industry adopted Columbia’s LP for extended classical works and collections, and RCA’s 45 for singles. This would be the state of affairs for the next 35 years or so.

While some LPs are quite collectible, again, the majority has little value. Most valuable are the “first editions,” errors or covers that were replaced, such as the famous Beatle’s Butcher Cover, originally intended for the album “Yesterday and Today.”

5. CDs

Developed jointly by Phillips and Sony in the late 1970s, CDs made it to the marketplace in 1982. Because they were digitally encoded and read by a beam of light, they did not wear, and were free of the annoying clicks and pops that plagued analog discs. CDs reigned for about 25 years until internet-based distribution of music in formats such as MP3 began to replace the disc medium.

Sony Compact Disc, circa 1982
Sony compact disc, circa 1982

CDs are not really old enough to be collectible in the sense that other records are.

That’s an overview of the various major formats of recorded music over the past century or so. In future blogs we may take a look at a few of these areas in a bit more detail.