Monday, May 20, 2013

Levi Strauss and the Jeans that Won the West


Levi Strauss was a German-Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who arrived in New York in search of the American Dream--and he found it! On Monday May 20th, 1874, Levi Strauss  & Company first offered blue jeans with copper rivets at $13.50 a dozen, and the rest of the story, as they say, is history. 

On May 20th, 1874, Levi Strauss introduced blue jeans with copper rivets bringing great joy to miners and workers across America who spent far too many years using rope to tie up their threadbare working pants!

Levi Strauss & Co. 506 jeans. Image by M62.



When Americans think of blue jeans, they think of Levis. Levi Strauss & Company has provided durable, attractive clothing for America’s cowboys, factory workers, and rebellious teens since the mid-1800s, and the story of Levi Strauss, the man, is as remarkable as the enduring success of the jeans that wear his name.


How the Strauss Family Came to America

On February 26, 1829, Löeb "Levi" Strauss was born in Buttenheim, in the Franconian region of Bavaria, Germany, to Hirsch and Rebecca (Haass) Strauss, who already had three sons and three daughters. Löeb was nicknamed “Levi” by his family. Levi Strauss’s father died in 1845.

Levi Strauss portrait.

Prior to their father’s death, Strauss’s brothers left their homeland for the United States and started a dry goods business in New York City. In 1847, Strauss, his mother, and three sisters traveled to America to join his brothers. In 1853, Strauss earned his American citizenship. That same year, he also decided to follow the gold hunters headed for California, but Strauss was not seeking gold. His plan was to start a subsidiary of his brothers’ dry goods store, importing clothing, umbrellas, and other items to sell to small stores that were opening throughout California near mining towns.

Following the Crowds to California

Levi Strauss was a successful businessman in California and he decided to share his success with his family. He sent for his sister, Fanny, and hired his brother-in-law, David Stern, into the company. The business thrived, and by the time Strauss was in his mid-thirties, he was a popular business man in San Francisco.

Coal miners, Ouray County, Colorado, 1890

And yet, as he made the rounds in his wagon with his dry goods, he noticed one thing that most miners had in common, one thing they were missing: durable pants. The pants worn by miners and factory workers were made of cotton, and often falling apart.

Jacob Davis Joins Levi Strauss

One day, Strauss received a letter from a customer, Jacob W. Davis, an immigrant from Latvia who arrived in the United States in 1868. Davis was a tailor in Reno, Nevada who had a design for a good pair of pants. He was purchasing fabric from Strauss to make tents and wagon covers. He started using copper rivets to reinforce horse harnesses. Then he came up with the idea of using these same copper rivets to hold pants together in areas under the most stress, and to use tent fabric to make the pants.

Levi's now come in many shapes and sizes for every member of the family.
 Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Davis, however, lacked the necessary money to purchase a patent for his product. Levi Strauss met with Davis and the men agreed to become partners, creating the first official pair of Levi work pants in 1873. Within a matter of a few years, Levi Strauss & Company was making history with their durable pants for miners, factory workers and cowboys. These early pants, however, were died brown, and not the popular blue worn around the world today, and they were not widely distributed until the 1890s.

Disaster Strikes Levi Strauss & Company

In 1906, an earthquake struck San Francisco, California and the original factory on Battery Street and all historical records of the company were destroyed in the horrific fire storm that followed.
San Francisco, following the earthquake of 1906.

Following in the tradition of their benevolent uncle, Strauss’s nephews rebuilt the company as quickly as possible and during the process they continued to pay their employee’s salaries and to assist other business owners in their efforts to rebuild. Levi Strauss & Company is one of the most successful businesses in America to this day.

Beloved Citizen and Benefactor

Levi Strauss was a compassionate and generous man and regular contributor to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society, and the Hebrew Board of Relief. He also funded scholarships for poor students at the University of California. He never married.

Levi Strauss Museum in Buttenheim, Germany.

Levi Strauss died on September 26, 1902. He left the bulk of his fortune, nearly six million dollars, to his extended family, his favorite charities, and to the Roman Catholic Protestant Orphan Asylums. He left his factory and Levi Strauss & Company to his nephews, the children of Fanny and David Stern.

Levi Strauss is buried in Colma, California. In his obituary, the L.A. Times referred to Levi Strauss as “one of the last of the oldtime merchants of San Francisco and one of the best-known men from the most southerly limit of California to Puget Sound.”

There is now a Levi Strauss Museum in Buttenheim, Germany.

Sources:
  • Downey, Lynn. "Levi Strauss & Company.” Levi Strauss & Co. Official Website. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  • Freeedman, Russell. Cowboys of the Wild West. Scholastic Inc.. Boston: 1985. 
  • “Levi Strauss Dead at San Francisco.” Published L.A. Times, September 28, 1902. Retrieved January 12, 2010. 
  • Levi Strauss California Museum. Retrieved April 20, 2013. 
  • “Our Past is a Glimpse into the Future.” Heritage. Levi Strauss & Company. Retrieved January 12, 2010. 

9 comments:

JoJo said...

I used to love the old Levi's commercials from the 70s and early 80s. Really ahead of their time. When I worked in SF but lived in Marin, my bus took me past Levi Plaza every day.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That's true! I remember those commercials and they were cutting edge.

JoJo said...

After I read your post I dug up my fave one from You Tube. lol

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Your favorite commercial? You'll have to share the link now! :-)

desa said...

Hey! Just wanted to say that being a history buff, I really like your posts.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Hey! I love hearing from people like you and hope you stop by again! I'm a history buff, too, and I love the American Old West. I just can't get enough of it--so many books! Lol!

Misha Gericke said...

Very interesting. I've always wondered about the man behind Levis. :-)

John Doe said...

I have just found an ultra rare piece of Levis history, a Levis 501 'Shrink-to-fit' calculator. There were 2000 pieces produced and distributed to retail outlets in 1984. And after talking with the inventor today I learned this was in response to a MAJOR error of mis-labeled sizes. This calculator corrected the error and all the calculators were pulled from retail outlets when all the mis-labeled 501's were sold. As far as I know, only the inventor, and now me, have one. Additionally the mis-labeled 501's which were sold, shrunk, and returned were sold off to Russia. Very interesting story

John Doe said...

I have just found an ultra rare piece of Levis history, a Levis 501 'Shrink-to-fit' calculator. There were 2000 pieces produced and distributed to retail outlets in 1984. And after talking with the inventor today I learned this was in response to a MAJOR error of mis-labeled sizes. This calculator corrected the error and all the calculators were pulled from retail outlets when all the mis-labeled 501's were sold. As far as I know, only the inventor, and now me, have one. Additionally the mis-labeled 501's which were sold, shrunk, and returned were sold off to Russia. Very interesting story

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