Between about 1900 and 1960 the 78rpm record was the main format in which every genre of music, along with speech was recorded. Millions indeed probably billions of such records survive and, for modest cost, provide an enjoyable hobby for anyone interested in any genre of music. There are usually about a thousand such records on sale at any one time on ebay UK, the vast majority at a low price and often obtainable without competitive bidding, see the ebay pages for 78s under 78 rpm records on ebay UK
As a keen collector myself I would like to share some of my excitement about my hobby and dispel some of the myths which dissuade people from listening to 78s.
1. Range of music available at 78rpm
There is everything which was played or sung in the first six decades of the twentieth century. You will find classical music, Gilbert and Sullivan and operatic arias. Be aware that as the discs are of short duration, there will be a number of 12" discs in a typical classical album, it will be a heavy item and you will frequently have to change records. Blues, jazz and popular music is easier to handle, usually on 10" discs and, of course, the songs and tunes were usually written with the 3 minute or so duration of one side of a 78rpm record in mind. You will find the great blues singers like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, classic jazz including Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, swing bands such as Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller as well as some later jazz up to the era of Charlie Parker. There is astonishingly good dance band music, bands such as Jack Hylton and Harry Roy. Country music including Jimmie Rogers (the singing brakeman), the Carter family through to Hank Williams and even early Johnny Cash. Vocal harmony wonders such as Bing Crosby and the rhythm boys, the Boswell Sisters, Mills Brothers and Berlin's Comedian Harmonists, a particular collecting interest of mine. There is outstanding gospel music such as the inspiring Sister Rosetta Tharpe. World music is available in abundance. For example I collect Yiddish 78s and, when I can, klezmer on 78rpm (look out for humorous but terrific klezmer clarinettist Mickey Katz and his Kosherjammers). Marlene Dietrich's great songs from the Blue Angel, along with other superb personalities from Fred Astaire to Mae West and Marilyn Monroe. You won't find the Beatles, except at great cost for a late 78 from India where the format continued to be produced into the early sixties nor will you find Bob Dylan, but you will find all the influences on these and other stars of the sixties. Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, all the rock and roll stars of the fifties can be found on 78s, with Elvis available as people clear their parental and grandparental attics on ebay.
2. How bad will it sound?
Many people consider that 78s are scratchy and will always get stuck "like a broken record". It is true that many 78s of the twenties and thirties will be found with wear, greying in the grooves, a host of small scratches and sometimes deep scratches. Usually the recording shines through the surface noise once one adjusts one's ears. Only deep scratches, of the sort that catch your fingernail, will cause a clicking sound. Light scratches on a 78rpm record can be harmless, as the grooves are deep and the needle or stylus picks up the sound from below the surface scratches. By the 1950s, when the format was extremely mature and recording techniques were excellent, 78s have a big sound and you will find that the most beat up looking rock and roll 78 can give enormous pleasure. So don't throw it away just because it looks like a piece of cr-p! Put it on the turntable and give it a spin.
3. Will it break?
Most 78s were made of a composition based on shellac, a material derived from the shell of beetles, which is hard but brittle. You have to take great care not to crack or drop your 78s but in other respects they are extremely durable. I enjoy playing 78s from the 1920s which look appallingly beat up but can still give good listening pleasure, despite being 80 or more years old. They will outlast later recording formats and still be playable in another hundred years. Cleaning is also easy. A damp rag with warm water will take off most of the dirt. A tiny spot of detergent is OK in extreme cases. Avoid dampening the label as you may damage it. Dry off the record with a soft cloth and you may discover that actually the condition is excellent and the "wear" was just dirt.
You will also find some later vinyl 78s, mainly from the 1950s. These cannot be played with steel needles, you must use electronic equipment.
4. Can it be posted and safely bought or sold on ebay?
Yes, but great care is needed and because of the weight of the records, more than 200g for a 10" 78 and the need for sturdy packing and plenty of padding, postage is expensive. It is usually much more economic to pack several at a time, packed together they give each other added strength and the same amount of packing material is required for one record as for five. See my own ebay guide - How to pack 78rpm records safely- which you can go to from a link at the bottom of this page.
5. What do I need to play my 78s?
You have a wide range of options. Wind up gramophones using steel needles are suitable for all except the vinyl 78s. You will need to buy new needles and a fresh needle is required for each side. Gradually steel needles will wear away your record, so this is not an ideal way to play a prize 78 in near mint condition but will give you good results for jazz or dance band 78s of the twenties to the forties in typically used condition. Radiograms from the 1950s or record players such as Dansettes from the 1950s and 1960s will be kinder to your 78s as they use a pick up and stylus which is much lighter than the gramophone sound box resting on its steel needle. Modern turntables are still being produced which can play 78s. You will find advice on equipment on the web, for example an excellent informative website offered by John Wright.
6. What should I pay?
At the outset of the hobby, avoid paying too much for any old 78. You can pick up a whole collection at modest cost by looking out for people within driving distance who are selling a collection or job lot on ebay for "collection only". Alternatively, follow your own musical interests. As usual you need to check the seller's feedback, especially to see whether they have posted 78s before and what their buyers say about packing. Beware of very low postage charges as this may be a sign of someone who has not previously posted 78s and underestimates the weight of packing material required. If in doubt contact the seller to ask about their packing method. Most 78s on ebay sell for a pound or two and many go unsold even at this low starting price. Many of the very best performers were so popular that their 78s are available in quantity- this goes for Bing Crosby, Paul Robeson and many others. Even the most superb items can be remarkably good value. On the day I write this guide, I noted that a lovely group of three Billie Holiday 78s, in excellent condition and on the gorgeous Vocalion swing label (black, red and gold) sold for only just over £17 plus £6 postage. That was after competitive bidding! Occasionally a very rare and sought after 78 will break the hundred pound barrier but this is unusual and depends on there being at least two collectors crazy to have the record. More often a fantastic record can be had cheaply. But my strong advice is to be as wide ranging in your collecting interests as possible. That way you will not be so desperate for a particular record that you enter a frenzied bidding war and pay way over the odds. Remember what I said about there being billions of 78s out there. Think of how many 78s were sold in the six decades when they were being recorded, pressed and sold all over the world.
I hope you have enjoyed my short guide. I know it has not been at all technical or erudite. It has been a brief top of my head romp which I hope will convey my own enthusiasm. If I have encouraged you, you will find plenty more information out there on the web including the more technical stuff. Collect and enjoy!