When Jeffrey Conner ran out of space to store his growing bike collection, he pivoted to a more economical hobby: collecting the logos – known as headbadges – from old and obscure bicycles. He tells Smith about his 1500-strong collection.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m an evolutionary biology professor by trade, but after family and work, I’m pretty much all about bikes. I started collecting headbadges because my wife was definitely not interested in having dozens of old bikes cluttering up the house. Now I have just under 1,500.
When did the hobby begin?
My first headbadge was a Rocket, from England. I got it the year after I graduated from college, when I was working as a bike mechanic in Seattle. I became fascinated with the diversity of designs and the quality of the craftsmanship of the old badges. But then I started building a career and having a family. It wasn’t until 30 years later when I stumbled across headbadge collecting online that I realised this was something I could pursue in my spare time.
What do you find so appealing about these logos?
They are reflections of their times, so it’s interesting to see how the badges have evolved over the years. In cycling’s boom years, from 1890 to just before World War I, almost every small town in France, Belgium, and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. had at least one local bike manufacturer. During this time headbadges were very ornate, crafted from metals like brass or copper. Sometimes the ancient technique of cloisonné was even used, which involves layering coloured enamel. Then the automobile came along, and drove many of these brands out of business.
What do you think of modern headbadges?
They tend to feature simpler designs. They’re also made from aluminium or tin, and sometimes they’re just stickers. Thankfully there has been a small resurgence in finely detailed metal badges, which has come out of the custom bicycle market.
Do badges differ from place to place?
Absolutely. Many feature elements from mythology and ancient history, so it is fun to try and figure out who and what they are. Old badges from Germany, Scandinavia and the U.S. tend to be more grounded in the graphic design tradition, with simple yet visually compelling logos. American badges often tried to appeal to boys by featuring different forms of transportation: rockets, trains, airplanes.
Do you have a favourite style?
The older French badges are the most freely artistic. Outwardly, their designs had little to do with bikes. Many countries opted for large, powerful animals as their emblems – lions, tigers, eagles, horses, elk – but the French had a penchant for small, quirkier animals like squirrels, rats and insects. I’ve done a lot of research on insects in my job, so I get a kick out of these.
To see more of Conner’s headbadges, pick up a copy of A Cycling Lexicon, out through Ginko Press.