Long ago, before iPods and iTunes, people used to pay around 99 cents to purchase a 7-inch PVC vinyl disc which they could place on a phonograph and, by using a stylus (needle), listen to the 3-minute tune imbedded in the grooves. Then, they got to turn the disc over and hear another song on the "B" side!
It was called a 45.
Originally designed to replace the thick, heavy, and breakable 78-rpm shellac record that had been the standard since 1900, the 45-rpm, introduced by RCA Victor in 1949, had to compete with the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm LP (Long Play) introduced by Columbia Records the year before. The LP could hold 10 times the material - up to 30 minutes on each side - but the 45 found its market in the area of popular music. Pop and rock-and-roll songs were perfect matches for the affordable little record. Jukeboxes, formerly limited by the larger-sized formats, could now play dozens of selections. The "golden age" of the 45 had begun.
Throughout the 1950s and early
60s, the 45 was the more commercially successful format. As music fans, however, became better able to afford the more expensive LP format, and with the presentation of the LP as a complete work (think The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album) and not just a compilation, sales of 45s began to decline.
The LP's reign was short-lived, however, as first cassettes and then compact discs (CDs) claimed greater market share, and by 1990 it was evident that both the 45 and the LP were on their way to obsolescence. Today, there are a few niche producers of vinyl, but, almost exclusively, the 45 and the LP live on only in the secondary markets.
It's no secret that 45s have become highly collectible. Some collectors simply wax nostalgic for mementos of their youth, while others focus on particular composers, musicians, singers, or groups.
More than a few collectors are solely interested in picture sleeves. Unlike LPs, which were sold in cardboard sleeves with protective inner sleeves of paper, most 45s were sold in plain paper sleeves usually decorated with nothing more than record company logos. Today, many picture sleeves are worth more than the records inside and have minimum values of $5 to $10, even without their records.
NOTE: Condition plays a major role in record/sleeve collecting. All prices mentioned here are for items in Near Mint (NM) condition. Unless a piece is especially rare, you can generally count on a 25 percent drop in price with each step down in grade.
A great example of how a picture sleeve can affect value is The Beatles' Can't Buy Me Love/You Can't Do That (Capitol 5150). Issued in early 1964, most copies were hurriedly shipped to dealers in generic Capitol sleeves in order to meet demand, but a few were released in picture sleeves . This is considered one of the rarest Beatles wrappers, and turns a plain-sleeved 45 worth a few dollars into a collectible worth $500-700!
Then there are the Hard Day's Night variations: Both released in 1964, the more common Capitol 5222 sleeve is valued at about $125, while the rarer United Artists UA-750 can fetch up to $1000.
And if you should come across the extremely rare promotional Ask Me Why (Vee Jay DJ No. 8), you could find yourself up to $15,000 richer!
At the other end of the spectrum, Elvis Presley's 45s from Sun Records did not have picture sleeves, yet they are valued at up to $1000 to $3000+ each because of the rarity of the discs themselves.
And lest you think that only Beatles and Presley records are collectible, check out the "most valuable records" and "recently added records" sections at Popsike.com (see below). From the Magnetics to Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young to the Sex Pistols, collectors are paying top dollar for items many of us have probably overlooked at yard sales or The Goodwill.
For more information about this collectible, check out these resources:
"A-Z of Record Labels," by Brian Southall, Chris Wright (Foreword)
"Goldmine 45 Rpm Picture Sleeve Price Guide," by Charles Szabla
"Goldmine Price Guide to 45 Rpm Records," by Tim Neely
Classic UK 45s
Interesting British site offers "Obscure Artist Discographies," "History of the 45 rpm record," more.
Check out their comprehensive "Glossary of Record Collecting Terms" and "Grading System."
The Colorful (and sometimes black and white) World of Beatles U.S. Picture Sleeves
Interesting additional information on Beatles' sleeves.
The History of Rock and Roll
A look at the different record formats.
Jesse's Beatles 45s
Detailed descriptions of disc and sleeve variations. Sound clips!
Mitch McGeary's Beatles Website
Has "a complete list of all picture sleeves issued in the U.S. from 1963 to present" with photos and details on variations.
"Archive of over 220,000 rare records auction results."
The Record Collectors Guild
Encyclopedia (dictionary of terms); articles on history, grading, caring, "The Microscopy of Vinyl Recordings"; forums; more.