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Harley-Davidson’s Lost Photographs 1915–1916: Exposed!

By Fred Mathews

MILWAUKEE, WIS., OCT. 18-JAN. 1–Have you ever had a sneaking suspicion that something of yours was missing, but couldn’t put your finger on it? This happened to the folks at the Harley-Davidson Museum, too. Recently they were gifted with the discovery of 436 thought-to-be-lost images that ranged in dates from 1915 to 1916. You can only imagine the surprise when they were told that some of their history had been found.

Harley-Davidson’s Lost Photographs 1915–1916

Harley-Davidson’s Lost Photographs 1915–1916

If you have ever been to the Harley-Davidson Museum, I hope you took advantage of a tour as there are things you might not have learned otherwise. Did you know that H-D has a copy of almost every piece of paper or photo that has been a part of their past? They currently archive over 150,000 images alone. They have more memorabilia for their company than any other company (that they know) of in the world. After talking to any one of their curators, you would also know they keep a detailed log of their images. If it was used in an ad, they could look up the negative—or so they thought. Going back through some materials, they realized they were missing two complete years! Throughout their history H-D has commissioned various photographers to document their work, both from a historical standpoint and for advertising or technical use. These photographers would work the images and eventually turn over the negatives that were commissioned by H-D. This was one time when they got hung up in the process somehow—and got lost!

Bill Rodencal, Harley-Davidson Museum head restorer and conservator, stands near one of his favorite prints

Bill Rodencal, Harley-Davidson Museum head restorer and conservator, stands near one of his favorite prints

Recently the Milwaukee County Historical Society was doing an inventory and came across some negatives that were soon tracked back as belonging to Harley-Davidson. Bill Rodencal, the museum’s head restorer and conservator, and curator Amy Gnadt were given the opportunity to display these great pieces. Bill was tasked with getting some of the prints on display while not having to take down or block another exhibit. This was done by creating a mock wall hung with magnets from the steel girders on the skywalk, which can be taken down and redecorated as needed for future events. No drilling required! From the wall colors to the font, it was all planned out to match that of the design used by H-D from the years of these found photos.

A local company, Tom Fritz Studios, handled the cleaning of the glass plates along with their printing and framing. Each panel, or mock wall, has a theme for the prints on it—from daily life involving a H-D motorcycle to shots taken from the back of a moving truck, which was not an easy task back then. Some of the plates were broken, but with the skill of those scanning each of these 436 images they were able to save them. Once discovered, the plates were only handled in small quantities to avoid a large disaster if something bad should happen.

Now they are all safe. The plates themselves have been properly archived along with each having been scanned into the modern digital world. Some of these historical pieces will be available for sale in various print sizes, and all of the images will be cataloged and numbered so they can be pulled when needed in the future. Similar to your own family photos, you might not look at them every day but you want to know they are safe when you feel like revisiting them. To learn more about these images, go to the museum before January 1 or visit the Harley-Davidson Museum website at www.harley-davidson.com/museum.

This display shows how some of the early H-D ads were created

This display shows how some of the early H-D ads were created


One comment

  1. I have a picture from 1915 with a man sitting on a 1915 Harley


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