There’s nothing that gets my blood pumping like a good rags to riches story. Maybe that’s why I always enjoy stories about the people who struck it rich during the California Gold Rush. But one of my favorite stories to come out of the Gold Rush has less to do with gold than it does with blue. That’s right. It’s time to talk a little bit about Levi Strauss and the history of Jean-eology! Hehe. Get it? Jean-eology. Oh, I keep myself in stitches! Get it? Stitches!!!!!
In 1853, the California Gold Rush was in its heyday and Levi Strauss was a budding entrepreneur of the tender age of twenty-four. German born Loeb Strauss (who would come to be known as Levi) had immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and two sisters when he was eighteen-years- old. Loeb’s father had died two years earlier. Coming to America meant reuniting with Loeb’s older half brothers, Jonas and Louis.
Jonas and Louis Strauss had already started a wholesale dry goods business, J. Strauss Brother & Co. Loeb became another brother in the “Brother and Co.” and family and customers soon began to refer to him with the more Americanized name of Levi.
News of the California Gold Rush made its way to the East and Levi had dreams of making his way West. Like so many others, Levi was certain he could make his fortune in California. In February 1853, the newly minted U.S. citizen, Levi Strauss, made his way to San Francisco. Now, Levi knew he wasn’t going to make his fortune by panning for gold. He had other ideas!
Levi took his business knowledge and established his own dry goods store, known simply as “Levi Strauss”. He imported clothing, bolts of fabric, umbrellas, handkerchiefs and underwear and sold them to the small stores that were popping up across the West. Brilliant! Even forty-niners needed new underwear!
Levi Strauss became a prominent San Francisco businessman. He was active in both business and cultural life throughout the city. And, he was a philanthropist and active supporter of the city’s Jewish community. Yes, he was a big hoo-ha deal long before anyone ever said, “Do these jeans make my butt look big?”
A Riveting Idea
In 1872, Levi received a letter that would, one day, change the way backsides of the world would be covered! The letter was from Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor who frequently purchased bolts of cloth from Levi Strauss. Davis had started using metal rivets to reinforce areas of strain on the pants he made. By placing rivets at the pocket corners and the base of the button fly, his pants were far more durable for the laboring men who purchased them. Davis was looking to patent his invention, but he needed a business partner. Levi Strauss found the idea simply riveting!
Strauss and Davis did indeed become partners. Together, they received their patent for their riveted trousers in May of 1873. Strauss brought Davis out to California to oversee production of their first West Coast manufacturing facility. The business began churning out “waist overalls” for the workingman. The first jeans were made of 9 oz. XX blue denim and were known simply as “XX”. With marketing genius like that, how could they fail?
Carpe Denim (Seize the Denim!)
Contrary to urban legend, it doesn’t appear that Levi himself ever sat down and sewed up the first pair of jeans from surplus tent fabric. (Although that does make for a really good story and livens up California history! Next, I’ll probably learn that the Donner Party was equipped with a supply of protein bars!)
By 1890, the patent on the riveting became public domain and other companies were free to make riveted clothing. By that time, the Levis XX jean was already a best seller and was about to get a name change when Strauss and Davis applied for a patent for its design. It became known as Levis 501. Why 501? No one knows. Thanks to the fires that followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, all records were lost. Even the Levi Strauss Co. is unsure of many of the specifics of the company’s early history.
Levi Strauss continued to be an active part of the company’s success until his death in 1902. At that point, the running of the company was handed over to his nephews. Family descendants continue to run the company, today. Yep, they kept the jean pool in the gene pool. So, what happened to Jacob Davis, the man with the riveting idea? I haven’t a clue. I hope that his descendents are sitting around counting their money, but I just don’t know.
We do know that, by the 1920s, Levis denim overalls were the best selling workpants in the country. We also know that it wasn’t long before blue jeans made their way into virtually everyone’s closet. You can dress them up. You can dress them down. You can even bedazzle the pockets. (I would like for the world to please acknowledge that jeggings are not blue jeans and should only be worn by youngsters and women with a freakishly low BMI.) At any rate, to paraphrase that great philosopher, Neil Diamond, much of the world will always be “Forever in Blue Jeans”.
Happy Trails, y’all!