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Picturing the Early Days of Harley-Davidson

Added February 10, 2021
Two motorcycle riders

The 1910s were exhilarating times for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Change was happening quickly as production expanded from over 1,000 motorcycles in 1909 to 27,000 in 1920. A new company racing team, new motorcycles, and a growing staff were part of the young company’s reality.

Photographers were there to capture it all and photography played a key role in this rapid growth. In marketing campaigns that showcased the latest models and products, photographs conveyed the thrill and excitement that were newly possible with a Harley-Davidson® motorcycle.

Photography in the Early Days

Cameras today are everywhere. With our phones we capture so many moments in our lives. As events happen, we are there to record them. Photographers in the early days of the Motor Company worked very differently, using cumbersome, large-format cameras that captured images on fragile glass plates.

A selection of historic images from the Harley-Davidson Archives that were photographed between 1915 and 1916 have been scanned and printed from those original glass plate negatives. The images provide a stunning level of detail and give a unique view into a period of incredible growth for the upstart company.

How Photography Was Used

Documenting everything from products to employee events to new motorcycles in action, the images were used in many ways throughout the company. Parts and accessories were quickly recognized as a way for riders to outfit their Harley-Davidson® motorcycle with the latest technology.

Parts and Accessories

Photographs of individual parts and branded accessories were used in marketing materials for dealers and prospective customers, and supplemented illustrations in owners’ and repair manuals.

Advertising and Marketing

Advertisements, racing posters, brochures, and other publications featured photographic images taken in and around Milwaukee, as well as on the road at races, endurance runs, and dealer events.

Archiving Milwaukee Life Through Photography

Providing a glimpse into Milwaukee life of the time, the city served as the backdrop in many of the photographs. A favorite sport of many Cream City based visitors to the H-D Museum is figuring out what corner of town was featured for various images.

Harley-Davidson™ commercial vehicles are pictured assisting with a customer’s order at a local market. Picnics along the river or at the waterfront were always more fun when a Harley-Davidson® motorcycle delivered you to a bucolic hideaway.

Neighborhood streets were picturesque spots for showing off new machines.

Building the Harley-Davidson® Brand

Portraits of visitors to the Juneau Avenue factory, key employees, and members of the Motor Company’s racing team, helped build the brand, celebrate victories, and introduce new motorcycles. Captured with fragile equipment by knowledgeable technicians, these images offer a unique look into Harley-Davidson’s past.

Using cameras that were large and heavy while handling fragile glass plates, action photography proved extremely difficult at the time, but was certainly not impossible. Often taken from the bed of a moving truck, it took skill and a precise knowledge of how the awkward and fragile equipment functioned to capture images like this one.

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