The Levi Strauss Co. and the history of blue jeans

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Early in 1848, James Marshall, a carpenter, was employed by John Sutter to construct a sawmill not far from his fort. Marshall discovered flakes of gold in the mill-race and told his employer. 

Sutter tried to keep the news from spreading, but his efforts were unavailing, and by the end of the summer, the whole world knew about California gold — plenty of gold. 

President James K. Polk confirmed the tidings in his annual message to Congress in December 1848. The comparative peace that San Francisco enjoyed in the first half of the 19th century suddenly changed when the “forty-niners” appeared. 

The whole western world caught gold fever and a huge polyglot population from every part of the United States and Europe descended upon California. 

Coming for opportunity

Among these bewildering gold-seekers was a German family coming to America, not because of the yellowish element, but because of the opportunity it provided for their success. 

In the summer of 1848, Rebecca Strauss bought four tickets aboard an American-bound German ship for her two daughters, a son and herself; the son’s name was Lob — soon to be called Levi. 

This fatherless family was part of the “push-pull” theory: being pushed out of the mother country because of restrictive economic opportunities and pulled toward America because other family members encouraged them to emigrate by sending back home glowing reports of economic opportunities. 

Upon arriving at the New York East River pier in 1848, Rebecca connected with two older siblings who had established a dry goods business in the city. Levi was soon called a peddler and sold the Strauss Brothers products of shoes, hats, vests, coats, pants, buttons, fabrics and trims, door to door and into the surrounding towns. 

Headed for San Francisco

For five years, he learned the trade, polished his English, became an American citizen of the Jewish faith and remained single. When the gold fever struck the Strauss family, Levi was tapped to head for San Francisco and open a wholesale shop on the waterfront. 

At 24, Levi Strauss was 5 feet 6 inches tall, showcased a full head of dark black hair and deep-set dark eyes and was beginning an under-chin beard. The fact that his older brothers selected Levi to journey west on a risky business would suggest that they had confidence in his business ability. 

In February 1853, Strauss embarked upon the long trip to San Francisco. Early San Francisco was called “the instant city” because it was a city of tents and shacks that grew prodigiously, burned down and grew up again. 

By 1853, the city was the backbone of the gold mining region. It had emerged from the bewildering situation of the late 1840s when a lack of military and police presence created a wave of crime. 

Levi looked upon his new city with excited curiosity that supported hotels, restaurants, bathing houses, banks, public schools, churches, fire companies, lawyers, flour and saw mills, houses of all shapes and sizes, and warehouses all along the Clay Street wharf.

Good timing

Whether by accident or good luck, Strauss arrived and made business connections at the proper time. He called on local retail stores in San Francisco and rode the stagecoach to the gold country towns. 

He had a business mind and was diligent in collecting debts owed the firm, even if it required the use of the local sheriff and the court system. 

As business increased, Strauss also involved himself in politics, community events, philanthropic work, real estate and business opportunities. His good reputation grew along with the dry goods business, and this brought him a different business adventure for his company headquarters on Battery Street. 

One day in 1870 an inflamed wife, looking for sturdy clothing for her husband, came into a Reno, Nevada, shop owned by a German immigrant named Jacob Davis. 

He had dappled in panning gold, hawking tobacco, and running a brewery. He was now making tents for prospectors, horse blankets for teamsters, and wagon covers for stagecoach companies. Business was steady but not lucrative. 

Clothing was needed by everyone, so Davis started to tinker. He invented a method to attach buttons with a screw, an ironing board for clothing and a cloth press. But it was the angry wife that changed everything. She wanted a pair of pants that her husband couldn’t destroy. 

Made an offer

Davis used rivets to reinforce the stitching and made the pants out of tent material. In July 1872, Davis sent Strauss a package that contained two pairs of overalls. One pair made of duck cloth, which he had purchased from Levi Strauss Co. and the other pair was blue made of denim cloth manufactured by the Amoskeag Co. in Manchester, New Hampshire. 

He described how he placed rivets in the pockets and seams to strengthen the pants and sold the duck pants for $3 and the blue pants for $2.50. Strauss’ ears perked up and his mind went into high gear when Davis remarked: “I cannot make them fast enough, let’s secure a patent and we can manufacture them.” 

Five days after the package arrived, Strauss asked the company lawyers to produce an agreement with Davis. A diamond in the rough was about to dazzle the fashion world in the future. 

After several attempts and enough frustration to kill a buffalo, patent No. 139,121 was issued to the Levi Strauss Co. and Jacob Davis, the inventor, May 20, 1873. The patent described the invention: “a pair of pantaloons having the pocket openings secured by means of rivets.” 

Partnership

With a partnership established, Davis moved to San Francisco and developed the manufacturing end of the Strauss business. Fifty female sewing machine operators were hired to sew pants. They were required to bring their own Singer #2 or Grover and Baker #1 machine for steady employment. 

The first overalls had 11 rivets, and they were stamped with the company’s initials, letters S.F. 4, and the date of the patents. 

Not far from the Strauss plant, another classic San Francisco event was taking place in 1873 on the excessive hill of Clay Street — the cable car. The riveted products were an instant success. 

The wholesale price of pants was $19.50 per dozen, jackets and jumpers at $21 per dozen, duck hunting coats at $50 per dozen and vests at $21 per dozen. In 1875, the riveted products sold well over 7,000 dozen, and the company moved forward from then on. 

Government contracts, prison uniforms for the state of California, the population explosion, cowboys, agriculture workers, miners and common laborers all added monetary value to the Strauss clothing business and his personal life. 

When Strauss (1902) and Davis (1908) died, they willed the Strauss Co. to their heirs. These family members still operate the company today. 

Popularized

“Waist overalls” with rivets were worn by workers and children until World War II. 

Soon after 1945, Life Magazine produced a picture of some college girls wearing jeans which caused a number of subscribers to have heart attacks. In the 1960s some cool dudes, with a bad attitude named Marlon Brando, James Dean and the Wild Ones on motorcycles made rivet pants an everyday fashion item and the name waist overalls changed to “jeans.” 

They suddenly came in all sizes, colors, shapes and styles. They came faded, with bell-bottoms, buck-shot, ripped out knees and sold all over the world. 

The oldest pair of Levi jeans was discovered in an abandoned Colorado silver mine and dated from the 1880s decade. It sold to the Levi Strauss Museum for $25,000. In 1880, it would have sold wholesale for $1.63. 

Strauss and Davis, two Bavarian Germans, struck it rich in gold — not in the gold mines but making clothing for the 49er who dreamed of the big strike. 

They would have a big smile across their face to see their most American iconic clothing still popular in the fashion world today. That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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