The history of jeans and how they came to be the most renowned garment in the world is also inevitably the story of a young business man named Levi Strauss, who founded one of the key enterprises of the clothing industry in recent times. That much we know. But history is associated with numerous myths, anecdotes and stories about how “Levi’s” for many years was the generic term for the blue jeans. This article uncovers some of these myths.
Part of what continues to fascinate and inspire denim consumers around the globe is the story of how the product came to be. No matter how we look at it, a pair of jeans undeniably always smell a bit of gold miners and connote tough rebels. With roots back to the 1850s, the story of Levi Strauss & Co. has for many decades been synonymous with the history of jeans. Throughout it’s existence, the company has marketed itself heavily on its central historical position, which to some extent is based on these myths, and as a consequence has created one of the industry’s strongest brands.
It all started in 1847 when Loeb Strauss, an 18-year-old emigrant from Bavaria, Germany, came to the promised land with his mother and three sisters. Strauss spent the first couple of years in New York where he worked for his two older brothers, Jonas and Louis, who under the name J. Strauss Brother & Co. had opened a wholesale company that specialized in dry goods (textile products).
Here, young Loeb quickly learned how to succeed in the industry and around 1850 he became known among family and customers as “Levi.” At the end of January 1853, Strauss received U.S. citizenship and in February 1853 he traveled to San Francisco to seek his fortune in the wake of the Gold Rush. Originally conceived as a west coast branch of the family business, he started a company under his own name. Records of the brothers’ fate from hereon are missing from the story. But Strauss, we know, imported dry goods ranging from clothes, underwear, umbrellas to handkerchiefs and raw fabrics, and resold them to the many shops that had sprung up after gold miners’ arrival.
David Stern, who was married to Strauss’s sister, joined the company in the mid-1850s, and in 1863 the name was changed to “Levi Strauss & Co.” After several relocations, in 1866 the San Francisco headquarters moved to Battery Street 14-16, where it remained for the next 40 years. When David Stern died in 1874, he left four sons who all joined the company. Their descendants still own Levi Strauss & Co. today.
Not until the early 1870s did the company begin to produce the so-called “Riveted overalls”. Levi Strauss was approached by a tailor from Nevada named Jacob Davis, who got the idea to reinforce pockets and other exposed areas of the pants with copper rivets. You can read more about Davis here.
Levi Strauss died in late September 1902 and left no heirs. Besides import and sale of dry goods, and not least the production of clothing, over the years Strauss had been involved and committed in the community of San Francisco, and he was known as one of the city’s biggest philanthropists.
The single most important event in the history of LS&CO., and the history of jeans, dates back to 1906 when San Francisco was hit by a severe earthquake and subsequent fires, which razed for three days. The disaster caused massive damage to LS&Co.’s headquarters and factories around the city and almost all archives, patent papers, factory equipment and photographs were lost.
Throughout the Gold Rush in the second half of the 19th century the town was hit by several major earthquakes, but the disaster in 1906 was the greatest of them all, and all written testimony from the first era of the company’s history disappeared. Thus, it has been difficult for historians and denim hunters to determine how the original jeans really looked and who actually invented them.
With the destruction of the company records, the earthquake created a breeding ground for the numerous myths, anecdotes and stories associated with Levi’s brand, including Levi Strauss’s personal history and especially the origin and invention of the famous and groundbreaking 501XX jeans.