We all know and love vinyl… the sleek sheen of a new record, its durability, its great sound quality. But what came before? Were records always this way?
Welcome to the world of shellac. Not only does shellac mean to get beat or defeated real bad, it’s also a type of record! Shellac records have been around since the mid to late 19th century, before vinyl came around. Most shellac records are 78 rpm. These records were usually made of brittle plastics, then coated with shellac. Shellac, in its purest form is the secretion of female lac bugs. Lac bugs populate Asia in huge numbers, particularly India and Thailand, where most lac resin is harvested. There, they crawl up and down trees, sucking their sap and leaving little tunnels of crusty resin that will then be harvested and turned into shellac.
Shellac was originally used in ancient Asian cultures for various things such as glue, makeup, dye, and even medicine. Shellac was prized for its ability to create a beautiful violet color when dying silk and other textiles. Since lac bugs are so prevalent in Asia, they became a fairly large part of Asian cultures. There are Vedic narratives of whole palaces made of the resin.
It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that Asia really started cashing in on these little red bugs. In America and Europe, the dye bi-product of shellac was extremely popular. As more and more alternative dyes were created, the demand for shellac dye decreased. This wasn’t all bad though, because chemists has been working on another star shellac product. Scientists had been working on creating a colorless shellac varnish that could be used for shoe polish, wood varnish, and now, is used in nail polish and food (icky). In the beginning of the 20th century, bleacheries began to pop up all over Europe and the United States. These bleacheries sold this new shellac product. It quickly took off and entrepreneurs created what would later become gigantic companies.
While these companies were flourishing, so were shellac records. Shellac records were pretty much the only records around until World War II, so up until then, a gain for the record industry was a gain for shellac. Medium.com says that: “Records grew steadily in popularity throughout that time, though, with sales going from 4 million units per year in 1900 to 30 million in 1909, and to over 100 million per year by 1920.” It was obvious that the demand for records, and consequently shellac, was high. Because of World War II, shellac exports were at a standstill. Shellac could be used to build equipment needed for the war, but the biggest source was sitting on the turntables in American homes. The war shook the country, but America was willing to do its part. This included sacrificing those beloved records for the cause. A few methods of record recycling were adopted, like only being able to purchase a new records if an old one was brought in to be recycled. One organization, called “Records For Our Fighting Men, Inc.” solicited the American Legion to house donation sites across the country, where records could be collected, then the shellac from those records would be sold right back to the record manufacturers. The money made selling the shellac was then used to buy new records for the troops on the ground.
Towards the end of the war, record manufacturers got sick of the shellac drought, and found something even better: vinyl. Vinyl records are pliable where shellac is stiff, light where shellac is heavy, and best of all, vinyl doesn’t shatter left and right (shellac does). In general, vinyl is much more durable, lightweight and less of a hassle compared to shellac.
If you take one thing away from this article, I hope it’s that, if you drop a shellac record, you’ve been majorly shellacked!