History of Blue Jeans - Interview with Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis
History of Blue Jeans
Interview with Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis
I know what you are thinking. Because in addition to my supernatural, unearthly ability to interview those who are dearly departed, I also possess ESP – Extra Sensory Perception. You are thinking, “I know who Levi Strauss, the maker of blue jeans, was but who the devil was Jacob Davis?” Am I right? Read on for the answer.
But first, a little history about the multi-national origin of those cool denim blue jeans almost everyone wears today.
History of Levis
In the Beginning
In the 17th century, the twilled fabric we now call denim was crafted in Nimes, France and originally called serge de Nimes.
Soon denim trousers made with raw material obtained from Nimes were being made in Chieri, a town near Turin (Torino), Italy. The biggest customer for these trousers was the navy of the Republic of Genoa.
Why? Because these blue denim sailor pants were tough and easy to launder. Sailors dragged them in nets behind the ship where the sea and sun gradually bleached the beautiful blue of the trousers to white.
I hear you thinking, “Where did the word ‘jeans’ come from?” The word is believed to have originated from the work pants worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy who were known as Genes.
Around the same time, a coarse calico fabric was made in India and worn by sailors of Dongari Killa, known as Fort George in Mumbai (Bombay). This cloth was inexpensive so it was often used as sail cloth. Sailors often re-used old sails to make their clothing. It didn’t take long for the name of the cloth to also mean the trousers made from it. They came to be known as dungarees. Another name for jeans.
By the 18th century, with the proliferation of cotton plantations and slave labor, the fabric for jeans was made completely from cotton. The material was usually dyed with indigo, a plant in the Americas and India, which gave the cloth a dark blue color.
Interview with Levi Strauss
me – It is a pleasure to meet you. Mr. Strauss. May I call you Levi?
Levi – Of course, although my given name was Loeb. I changed it myself to Levi.
Me – Tell me a little about your early years.
Levi – I was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria in Germany on February 26, 1829. My father, Hirsch Strauss, was a dry goods peddler who already had five children with his first wife who died. My mother, Rebecca Haus, was his second wife. I had an older sister so there were nine of us at the dinner table.
In 1847, I came to New York with my mother and siblings. My brothers, Jonas and Louis, had made the journey earlier and begun a dry-goods business called J. Strauss Brothers & Co.
me – What made you leave New York for San Francisco?
Levi – The California Gold Rush of 1849. That was too exciting a time to miss, so I decided to head west.
Me – Were there visions of gold nuggets dancing in your head?
Levi – You mean like sugar plums? (Laughs). No, I wasn’t going to take my chances with panning for gold. I planned to sell supplies to the hordes of miners who arrived daily in Frisco to outfit themselves before heading for the gold fields. I wanted to be the Sam Walton (Walmart) of my day.
I became an American citizen and established a dry-goods business under my name and also served as the West Coast representative of my family’s New York firm. In 1863, the company was renamed Levi Strauss & Co. In 1866, I moved headquarters to larger quarters on Battery Street where we remained for the next 40 years.
One of my regular customers was a tailor named Jacob Davis.
me – That sounds like the perfect introduction.
Interview with Jacob Davis
me – Thank you for being so patient, Mr. Davis. May I call you Jacob?
Jacob – What else? I changed my name, too.
me – You weren’t named Jacob at birth?
Favorite Levis Stone Washed Commercial
Jacob – Sure I was. I changed my last name from Youphes to Davis. No one could pronounce it and I had trouble spelling it.
I was born in 1834 in Riga, Latvia and came to the U.S. in 1854 when I was twenty. That’s when I changed my name to Jacob Davis. I owned a tailor shop in New York City and then Augusta, Maine. I moved west to San Francisco in 1856 and north to Weaverville to work as a tailor.
Two years later I left California for western Canada and lived there for nine years, got married and started a family.
me – You seem to have been peripatetic.
Jacob – Peripa-whatic?
me – You traveled around a lot.
Jacob – I guess I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. That wasn’t the end of my traveling. I went to Virginia City, Nevada and opened a cigar store. After three months I became a tailor again. Then I relocated to the small railroad town – it was small in 1868 – of Reno, Nevada and invested in a brewery. I lost almost everything I had. Finally, in 1869 I opened a tailor shop on the town’s main street. I began to make wagon covers, tents and horse blankets from rugged white duck cloth I purchased from Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco.
Brad Pitt 1991
me – When did you get the idea for rivets on work pants?
Jacob –Toward the end of 1870, a customer asked me to make a pair of ‘cheap’ pants for her very large husband whose pants wore out very quickly. I had already discovered that heavy thread alone would not always hold pockets on to work pants.
So I had a brainstorm. I decided to try out copper rivets to reinforce the pockets and other points of strain. They worked very well when I used them on horse blankets.
I started using rivets on all the pants I made; first on duck and then on denim. It wasn’t long before other tailors were beginning to imitate my idea with the rivets. I started thinking about how could I protect my idea?
That was when I wrote a letter to Levi Strauss who had been supplying my fabric to ask his help in applying for a patent. I still have a copy of that letter. Would you like to see it?
me – Of course!
For the Gals
For the Guys
Letter Jacob Davis wrote to Levi Strauss
Reno, July 5th, 1872
Mess. Levi Strauss & Co., Gents,
Inclosed please find Chack for $350.00 for which please give me credit balince my account and wright me how much thare is left to my credit, deduct $4. for the Plush and Thread which I have sent back. The reason I send you so much money is because I have no use for it here and you may alowe me Interest as well as the Baink.
I also send you by Express 2 ps. Overall as you will see one Blue and one made of the 10 oz Duck which I have bought a greate many Peces of you, and have made it up to the Pants, such as the sample the secratt of them Pants is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots and I found the demand so large that I cannot make them fast enough.
I charge for the Duck $3.00 and the Blue $2.50 a pear. My nabors are getting yealouse of these success and unless I secure it by Patent Papers it will soon become to be a general thing everybody will make them up and thare will be no money in it. tharefor
Gentlemen I wish to make you a Proposition that you should take out the Latters Patent in my name as I am the Inventor of it, the expense of it will be about $68, all complit and for these $68
I will give you half the right to sell all such Clothing Revited according to the Patent, for all the Pacific States and Teroterous the balance of the United States and of the Pecific Coast I reserve for myself, the investment for you is but a trifle compaired with the improvement in all Coarse Clothing. I use it in all Blankit Clothing such as Coats, Vests and Pents, you will find it a very salable article at a much advenst rate.
Should you decline to spent the amount required for the Patent Papers please wright to me and I will take them out at my own expense, under all cercomestance please dont showe the pents to anybody I have already obtained through Dewey & Co. of the Centific Press 2 Patents and one was rejected, but I am so situated with a large Family that I cannot do anything with it at Present tharefore as I have said if you wish to take out the Papers, Please go to Dewey & Co. of the Centrific Press and have the Papers made out in my name for 17 years they will send them up to me for Signature.
Please answer these as soon as possible, these looks like a trifle hardley worth speakeing off But nevertheless I knew you can make up pents the way I do you can sell Duck Pents such as the Sample a $30 per doz. and they will readyly retail for $3. a pair excuse these long latter, as I could not describe particulars in a short space, I have nothing more at present.
I remain yours Truly, J.W.Davis
me – That was a remarkable letter, Jacob. You may not have won any awards for spelling but you were certainly an entrepreneurial visionary. But there was one word in your letter that I couldn’t figure out: ‘Teroterous.’
Jacob – Teroterous, you know, like what countries are before they become a state.
me – Right! Territories! Gotcha. Levi, what did you think when you first read Jacob’s letter?
Levi – I know a good idea when I see it. I saw the potential right away. I accepted Jacob’s offer and together we received U.S. Patent #139.121 for an “improvement in fastening pocket-openings” on May 20, 1873.
Jacob – Yes, even then, the government used five words when they only needed one – rivets!
Early Blue Jeans History
me – Were your denim pants called jeans then?
Levi – No, as a matter of fact they were advertised as reliable, durable work wear for working men and called “waist overalls.” And very reasonably priced.
Jacob – Yes, a brand new pair of Levi overalls cost only $1.25. I can’t tell you the exact date that the first new trousers were made and sold in 1873 because company records were lost in the earthquake and Great Fire of 1906. I had moved to San Francisco when Levi hired me to supervise the production of the new pants with rivets.
When customers began to refer to our pants as ‘Levi’s’ we quickly trademarked the name. I could have added my name to the product but Levi's and Jacob’s didn’t seem to be as catchy.
– What did that orange double row of stitching on the back pockets of the jeans
mean? Is it a flying bird?
Levi – It’s known as the Arcuate stitching design and was used as a trademark for our jeans.
Note: This is the oldest apparel trademark still in use today. During World War II, the government rationed essential items such as thread so the design was painted in orange on the pockets.
me – What about the trademark leather patch and the number, 501?
Jacob – The ‘Two Horse Brand’ leather patch shows the garment being pulled between two horses to prove its strength and was first used in 1886. By1890, lot-numbers were being used for Levis and 501 was the number assigned to the overalls with copper rivets.
Note: By1900, the company charged $8.50 for a pair of blue jeans.
Levi – I’ve been keeping a journal on blue jeans culture. They became popular among teens in the early 1950s because they symbolized a form of protest. Think James Dean in the films, “East of Eden” and “Rebel without a Cause.”
Me - How do you know about those films?
Levi – I read your hub, “Interview with James Dean.” Also, we really enjoy watching movies – they are shown each night. Jacob and I subscribe to HP – it’s a free service.
me – What do you mean by HP? Hub Pages?
Levi – No, HP stands for Heavenly Productions – the celestial version of Netflix. I like watching Brando and Newman in the movies, too. They were icons who wore their Levi’s constantly. Great for advertising our brand. Even Clark Gable wore jeans in the film, ‘Misfits.’
Jacob – We can fill you in on the role our jeans have played from the early 1900s to now.
me – Just from the movies?
Levi – (laughing) No, from the internet; we have that, too. Our search engine is called …
me – (interrupting) I hope you are going to say, Google.
Jacob – Close but we use the more comic version … Giggle.
me – You’re kidding me!
Levi – Yes, we are! We use Google and sometimes that Italian one … bada Bing.
me – Very funny.
Levi – You’re not the only one with imagination.
OK, here’s more Levi blue jeans history. Originally, we were a small regional factory in San Francisco, and our primary market was laborers, miners, and cowboys.
Jacob – We had the market all to ourselves until our patent for riveted jeans expired and other companies begin to use our rivets idea. Rival jeans began to appear in the 1920s.
Then the United States Navy got into the act and jeans, known as dungarees, became part of each sailor’s official working uniform. They were straight-legged at first but later became boot-cut for better ventilation.
me – How did the dude ranch craze of the 1930s affect your jeans business?
Levi – That was a lollapalooza of a lucky break. Vacationing Easterners returned home with stories and examples of those hard-wearing cowboy pants with rivets.
Another boost came in World War II, when blue jeans were declared an essential commodity and were sold only to people engaged in defense work.
Note: ‘Lollapalooza’ is American slang for an extraordinary thing or person which originated between 1900 and 1905.
Jacob – From a company with only 15 salespeople and 2 plants, we grew in thirty years to include a sales force of 22,000, with manufacturing plants and offices in 35 countries.
Levi – Unfortunately, we weren’t around to see that. I passed away in 1902 and left the business to my four nephews and other relatives – I had never married.
Jacob – And I took over the shirt lines as well as pants, and continued to supervise the Levi Strauss factory until my death in 1908 when I was succeeded in the job by my son, Simon Davis, who ended up running the company.
How to Make Holes in Your Jeans
me – In 1937, why did you begin covering the rivets on the back pockets of your jeans?
Jacob - Our early jeans had rivets on the front and back pockets. But we started covering the rear rivets when customers complained that the rivets scratched school desk chairs and saddles. Since 1967, reinforced stitching has replaced the back pocket rivets.
me – Did you happen to see the film, “Cool Hand Luke,” shown by your celestial Netflix?
Levi – I know where you’re going with that. Yes, our denim jeans and chambray shirts were issued in most correctional facilities because they were suitable for rugged manual labor – like the work Paul Newman did as Luke on a prison farm in that film.
I mentioned James Dean popularizing jeans in his films. Did you know that sometimes adults wearing jeans were banned in theaters and restaurants? It wasn’t until the 60s they became accepted as a fashion trend in the U.S.
Jacob – In the 60s and 70s, jeans were seen as a symbol of “Western” decadence by people in other countries. They were as popular with university and college students as they were with teenagers. No longer simply dark blue and plain looking, they became available with embroidery or with painted psychedelic images.
Note: Originally, men's blue jeans had buttons and later the zipper down the front, but women's jeans had the zipper down the right side. By the 1960s, there was equality. Both men and women’s jeans had the zipper down the front.
me – I heard there is an interesting story about the rivet at the bottom of the jeans crotch that I’ve seen in ads of the original Levis.
Levi –The gossip around the factory is that the company president once got too close to a campfire and the crotch rivet conducted heat too well. So it was subsequently removed. Potential product liability you know.
Jacob – In the 70s, stonewashed denims were introduced and jeans became even more popular to both men and women. Have you heard the story about the invention of pre-washed jeans?
me – You mean the swimming pool story?
Jacob – Yes. Hal Burgess was a salesman for a company making jeans in Cartersville, Georgia. In the 70s while on a sales trip, there was a flood in the hotel room where Burgess had stored his supply of jeans. He used the hotel’s pool to wash the jeans which then shrunk.
So he marketed them as “pre-washed” jeans and sold them with sizes marked two times smaller than their initial labels. They became a hit and very profitable for us.
Levi – Since the 80s, jeans have come to symbolize celebrity culture, fashion and being sexy. Remember the controversial ad by Calvin Klein in which 15-year-old actress, Brooke Shields proclaims: “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”
"If my jeans could talk, would I be embarrassed?" - Brooke Shields
Jacob – The term, designer jeans, was coined and jeans became slimmer, tighter and even more form-fitting. Now they are commonplace for casual Fridays and many folks wear them every day.
Levi – Thanks for taking the time to interview us, but we have to rush back now. They are showing a re-release of a musical film made in '28 back at our place we have been waiting to see: "The Jazz Singer." He was in the rag trade, too.
Jacob – Yes, It's all about Isaac Singer, you know, of Singer Sewing Machines.
me –The Jazz Singer? I think you may be mistaken .... er, never mind, enjoy! And no thanks are necessary. The pleasure was all mine.
My favorite blue jeans joke
A woman had gained more than a few pounds. It was most noticeable to her when she squeezed into a pair of her old Levi blue jeans. Wondering if the added weight was very noticeable, she asked her husband, “Honey, do these blue jeans make me look like the side of our barn?”
“Of course not, dear, not at all,” he gallantly replied. “Our barn is red!”
- The jeans market has grown to be a $15+ billion industry.
- The average U.S. jeans wearer owns 7 pairs of jeans.
- A typical pair of Levi's 501® jeans takes about 1 3/4 yards of denim, 213 yards of thread, five buttons and six rivets.
- There are 37 separate sewing operations involved in making a single pair of Levi's 501® jeans.
- The red Tab Device was created in 1936 to help identify Levi's501® jeans from a distance.
- Until 1960, Levi's jeans were called "waist overalls."
- In 1997, Levi Strauss & Co. paid $25,000 for a pair of 100 year old jeans found in an old Colorado mine, which is the oldest known pair of Levi jeans.
- Levi Strauss & Co. is a privately held clothing company owned and controlled by descendants of Levi Strauss’ four nephews.
There are few items of American clothing more popular and beloved than Levis, the blue jeans first introduced by two visionary immigrants, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis.
© Copyright BJ Rakow 2011. All rights reserved.
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