Go with the Cover Flow

The young folks may be wondering why a CD or a phonograph record or a small batch of downloads is termed an “album,” and the answer is simply this: when records were 78 rpm, typically ten inches in diameter, and played for four or five minutes at most, the only way to sell a recording of a symphony or a Broadway show was to create a package of several discs, each in its own envelope, and then bind those envelopes together into, yes, an album.

Still, all these blank sleeves were boring: “Ridiculous,” said Alex Steinweiss. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.”

First cover art by Alex SteinweissDespite cost concerns, Columbia Records put Steinweiss, then a 22-year-old designer from the advertising department, to work on improving the appearance of those covers, and the first thing he came up with was this mock theater marquee for a Rodgers & Hart compilation. (Photo courtesy of Columbia Records/Sony Music; click to embiggen). The year was 1939, and Columbia had itself a hit. After working with the Navy in World War II, Steinweiss returned to Columbia as a freelancer and devised a sleeve for the label’s new plastic microgroove 33⅓-rpm Long Playing record, or as it was dubbed almost immediately, the LP.

Many years later, as we feed old songs into iTunes and wonder what sort of bizarre artwork Apple will find for us, we should remember Alex Steinweiss, who made it all possible. He left the record industry in the 1970s and began creating his own art; he died this week in Florida at 94.

(Via Kevin Walsh’s Facebook page.)

Update: Steinweiss’ status is challenged.

9 comments

  1. Roger Green »

    21 July 2011 · 1:00 pm

    left a message; got a fail message

  2. Roger Green »

    21 July 2011 · 1:01 pm

    anyway, basically I was saying that the “album” is the collection, like a photo album. The LP, CD, whatever is the format.

  3. Jennifer »

    21 July 2011 · 1:11 pm

    The thing about this post that dazzles me the most? The impressively broad spectrum of your knowledge bank. As per usual.

  4. Teresa »

    21 July 2011 · 2:22 pm

    Nearly on topic… but not quite. I just got a 5 CD set of recordings with Django Reinhardt and Staphane Grapelli from the 1930’s. The quality of the conversion from 78 to CD is amazing. It’s got some nice CD cover art too. I wonder if it’s the original… but kinda doubt it. heh.

  5. CGHill »

    21 July 2011 · 3:50 pm

    I think I’ve seen a similar set on vinyl. (It was maybe a two-record set, so maybe you have the unexpurgated version.)

    The nice thing about 78 noise is that it’s a known factor, its frequency pattern being fairly consistent: it can be cleaned up with relatively little effect on the rest of the recording.

  6. Tatyana »

    21 July 2011 · 5:13 pm

    To think that if only he didn’t sign that contract with Columbia, giving them rights to his invention, he wouldn’t have to turn to making ceramic bowls at 55…he could see the world, do free art – I mean, not utilitarian and not a source of his daily bread…
    I remember the 78 records very well (and 33, too…); I also remember a particular skill one had to master in handling them, holding them gingerly by the edge. And using a soft velvet brush to dust them off

  7. Teresa »

    21 July 2011 · 6:23 pm

    Posting from my iPad so it’s difficult to link. You can find the set on amazon of all places! Definitely more than 2 LP’s would hold. It’s quite impressive for the quality and price.

  8. CGHill »

    21 July 2011 · 6:51 pm

    I still have my Discwasher brush, and about half a pint of its vaunted (and almost certainly overpriced) fluid.

  9. Dr. Weevil » What Comes in a Plain Brown Wrapper? »

    21 July 2011 · 11:04 pm

    […] Dustbury and Ann Althouse blogged the death of Alex Steinwess, who invented the album cover in 1939. Before […]

RSS feed for comments on this post