Story of Sound Part 3: Shellac to vinyl, how World War Two changed the record

Previously on the Story of Sound blog series, we travelled back in time to the late 1800s to discover who was the first inventor to create a machine which both recorded and played back sound, and discovered the forgotten format of wax cylinder recordings. Read parts 1 and 2 here:

The Talking Machine

“Canned music” and a war of formats

First invented in 1887, the gramophone disk paved the way for commercial recordings, leading to nearly a century with discs as the format of choice for recorded sound within the mass consumer market.

We may all be familiar with the notion of vinyl discs, the types of discs that fill our record collections and local record stores, and that are currently having a revival within popular culture. However, what may be less familiar is that the mass popularity and use of vinyl to produce discs stems from the role that vinyl discs played to support the U.S war effort during the Second World War.

Between 1889 and the 1950’s, the most commonly used material to produce recording discs was Shellac. Shellac is a natural resin secreted by the lac bug, an insect native to India and Southeast Asia. Shellac is a brittle material, and the ridged discs it produced are harder, heavier, and more fragile then the vinyl discs we are familiar with today. Shellac first gained popularity for its natural resistance to moisture. Know as a ‘natural plastic’, it could easily be scratched into with a recording needle to produce records. However, its firm quality meant that shellac discs were incredibly fragile and could be shattered when dropped.

   Shellac discs are often called ‘78’s’, referring to their most common play back speed of around 78 revolutions per minute. Standard 78’s were either 10 inches (25 cm) or 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter and were sold in plain paper or card sleeves which had a central circular cut-out to reveal the record label at the centre of the disc inside. The discs held up to five minutes of recorded sound per side and were a popular form of home entertainment.

In 1930 an American company called RCA Victor (which had been founded by the pioneer of recording discs Emile Berliner and businessman Eldridge Johnson) developed a new disc that quadrupled the existing recording time on available on the market. The discs, which were 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter and had a play back speed of 33.5 revolutions per minute were made from vinyl, a versatile plastic that was on the rise. These discs offered around 21 minutes of recorded sound per side, forty-two minutes of playback time in a world where discs played for only around 10 minutes. 

Why then did vinyl not seize the market until the 1950s? The initial release of vinyl discs was untimely. Vinyl discs required different play back equipment to that of their counterparts which most consumers did not have, and with the looming Great Depression of the 1930s, consumer wariness caused vinyl to be an initial commercial failure.  

At the outbreak of the Second World War, American President Franklin Roosevelt, ordered a 70 percent cut in the production of new audio records. Before the war, record production claimed approximately 30 percent of America’s supply of shellac. Shellac was a versatile material that could be used for military production, including explosives, artillery shell coatings, and signal flares. As a material that originated from outside of the U.S.A, acquisition of Shellac was increasingly difficulty. In addition to substantially cutting the production of shellac records, a public appeal was launched calling for the donation of old discs to be recycled. The call for donations however was not just for the purpose of melting down records for weaponry. The American public were encouraged to donate records to be sent to troops to boost morale.

Image credit: New York Times

Events were organised to assist the cause, including a “War Records Dance” at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1942, the admission cost of which was five records. By 1943, the American Legion collection post counted 25,000 donated discs.

Image credit: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographic archive

As a result of the war, shellac records were essentially phased out, giving vinyl a second chance to claim the market, and this time it was successful.

The increased recording time allowed artists to release not only songs, but whole albums, and the 1960’s saw the start of an ‘Album Era’. 

Vinyl records held their place until the next new major shift in recorded sound, when the mass consumer market was revolutionised by a new portable format, the cassette tape.

To find out about the production of shellac discs, watch archival film footage on the production process from a 1942 RCA Victor documentary here

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