SHRINK-WRAPPING ALBUMS did not become standard practice for the American record industry until 1963–1964. Prior to that, EP albums and LP albums were shipped to wholesalers and retailers without any protection! Then Robert B. Cohen, a rack jobber in New Jersey, started wrapping records in protective plastic sleeves, making him the “Godfather of Shrinkwrapped Albums.”
If you started buying albums in the US after 1963, you grew up thinking that Wholly Grommett in Heaven had created shrinkwrap sometime after He took a break from creating the World. That is, it seemed like LP albums had always become this way from manufacturer to consumer.
I am here to nominate Robert B. Cohen as the “Godfather of Shrinkwrapped Albums.”
These plastic coverings were thin sheets of transparent polyvinyl chloride, which is the same substance that is used to make “vinyl” records! An album (which minimally consists of a record inside a cardboard sleeve) was wrapped in the PVC, sealed, and “shrunk” using heat so that the wrap clung to the jacket like a new skin.
But when I first started going record shopping in ’64, I was surprised to see that older albums sitting in the racks—especially in independently owned stores—were often without shrinkwrap.
Someone at one of the record shops I visited explained to me that the clingy plastic wrap was a fairly new innovation and that older albums without it were still brand new and unplayed.
Elvis Presley’s A Touch Of Gold Volume 1 (RCA Victor EPA-5088) from 1958 is enclosed in a baggy-like wrapper made of thick plastic with a price sticker printed on the baggy. A few record companies adopted this “baggy” to protect LP records in their jackets. The perforated top of the baggy for this copy of Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue (Columbia CS-8163) from 1959 has been torn open to access the record.
Sealed cellophane sleeves
While cruising back issues of Billboard and Cash Box for information about the first Elvis Presley records that RCA Victor released in late 1955, I stumbled upon an article that may have addressed the beginning of the American record industry’s selling albums in protective plastic coverings.
The December 31, 1955, issue of Billboard featured an article titled “Jobber on the Rack With Profit Inroads.” It was datelined from New York on December 24, 1955. A rack jobber is “a manufacturer who displays and sells their goods in a store and shares the profit with the store owner.” (Cambridge Dictionary) In the record business of the 1950s, a rack jobber was rarely a manufacturer but an individual who represented most major and many independent record companies.
Here are the pertinent parts of the article (with slight adjustments made to the text and punctuation to resemble the style of this blog and italicized emphasis added by me):
“The rack jobbers have their troubles, too. The worst of these, perhaps, is the relatively low mark-up on which both jobber and rack store must operate. The stores carrying racks have been complaining in some locales about regular disk dealers and department stores who sell major label pop disks for 69¢.
Since the rack retailer operates on 25% profit, he can’t meet this competition. Then, too, many stores feel the 25% is low considering the mark-ups of up to 40% they receive from jobbers of hard goods (such as pots, pans, etc.).
Many dealers also have been complaining about the lack of protection against pilferage. Supermarket customers, they insist, are unusually adept at making bargains for themselves by switching $1.49 EPs into 25¢ jackets.
One big rack jobber in the East, Mershaw of New Jersey, is trying to protect its accounts by the device of packaging its disks in sealed cellophane sleeves. This is accomplished at a cost of 24¢ per disk, including labor.”
The article addresses the problems that the rack jobbers were having in displaying their wares and not having them stolen or damaged. Mershaw of New Jersey started encasing their albums (here they are discussing seven-inch, 45 rpm EP albums although I am uncertain of what records were selling for a quarter in the ’50s) in plastic sleeves.
So, 1955 may be the year that American record albums were first wrapped in protective plastic sleeves, leading to the less cumbersome and more attractive shrinkwrapping in the early ’60s.
This factory-sealed copy of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (Capitol T‑2442) from 1965 has a sticker advertising Paul singing Michelle affixed to the shrinkwrap. The Beach Boys’ absurdly titled Carl And The Passions – So Tough (Reprise 2MS-2083) from 1972 is a two-record album in a gatefold jacket. To open the jacket, the owner had to remove the shrinkwrap. Consequently, finding a copy in opened shrinkwrap such as the one above is not easy.
Godfather of Shrinkwrapped Albums
There is not much information about Mershaw of New Jersey on the internet. It was a rack jobbing company started by owner and president Robert B. Cohen, possibly to display and move books for Simon & Schuster. By 1960, the company had offices in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Cohen was successful and expanded into magazines and media.
If there is an earlier instance of records being wrapped than the instances described in “Jobber on the Rack With Profit Inroads,” the only way to find it would be to read through every issue of Billboard and Cash Box from 1948 through 1955—which I am not about to do. Unless someone else stumbles over an earlier article in one of the trade magazines, 1955 and Mershaw will have to suffice as the beginning of record-wrapping!
So then, I am here to nominate Robert B. Cohen as the “Godfather of Shrinkwrapped Albums”!I am here to nominate Robert B. Cohen as the ‘Godfather of Shrinkwrapped Albums.’ Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is a stereo copy of the Beatles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT album (United Artists UAS-6366) from 1964. The record was encased in a sealed plastic “baggy” for additional protection. This copy was sold by Heritage Auctions (“The World’s Largest Collectibles Auctioneer”) for $1,250 in 2014. The photo above is from the Heritage auction.
Mystically liberal Virgo enjoys long walks alone in the city at night in the rain with an umbrella and a flask of 10-year-old Laphroaig who strives to live by the maxim, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a college dropout (twice!). Occupationally, I have been a bartender, jewelry engraver, bouncer, landscape artist, and FEMA crew chief following the Great Flood of ’72 (and that was a job that I should never, ever have left).
I am also the final author of the original O’Sullivan Woodside price guides for record collectors and the original author of the Goldmine price guides for record collectors. As such, I was often referred to as the Price Guide Guru, and—as everyone should know—it behooves one to heed the words of a guru. (Unless, of course, you’re the Beatles.)