A Brief History of Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi Strauss & Co. was founded in 1853 by Levi Strauss. Headquartered in San Francisco Ca, the company employs seventeen thousand people worldwide and generates almost $5 billion in revenue. The history of Levi Strauss & Co. is a remarkable story of hard work, innovation and success embodying the very ideals of American business.
Levi Strauss was born in Buttonheim, Germany in 1829 to Hirsch and Rebecca Strauss. In 1847 at the age of 18, young Levi, his mother and two sisters immigrated to New York City to join a wholesale dry goods business run by his two brothers Jonas and Louis. The company was called J. Strauss Brother & Co.
Levi eventually headed to Louisville, Kentucky to sell products for his brothers’ company. In early 1853 he became an American citizen and in March of that same year, he travelled west to San Francisco in order to represent the family business. Opportunities abounded in San Francisco with the city in the midst of the California gold rush. Strauss soon opened his own dry goods wholesale business known as Levi Strauss & Co. He sold clothing, canvas and other dry goods to retailers throughout the region.
Jacob Davis worked as a tailor in Reno, Nevada. He purchased items from Strauss on a regular basis. A customer once asked Davis to make some sturdier pants for her husband. Davis began incorporating metal rivets at the corners of the pockets and the button fly. In 1872, Davis contacted Strauss about his new process for making work pants more durable. He wanted to patent the product, but didn’t have enough money to file the application. Strauss decided to fund the process and the two men would jointly own the patent. In May 1873 U.S. patent 139121 for "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings" was granted opening the way for the production of Levi jeans.
Davis joined Strauss in San Francisco to make these new jeans known at the time as “waist overalls”. They were marketed under the brand name of “XX” since nine ounce XX blue denim was used as the source material. Nine ounce XX was a rugged cotton twill textile made in the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. Each pair had one back pocket with Arcuate stitching, a watch pocket, a cinch, suspender buttons and a crotch rivet. The rivets were embossed with the “LS&CO symbol. Blue indigo dye was originally used on the cotton fibers, but later replaced by a synthetic.
In 1886, the Two Horse brand leather patch was used to demonstrate the strength of the overalls and reinforce Levi’s status as the inventor of riveted clothing. The rivet patent expired in 1890 and Levi’s began using the 501 trademark to designate copper riveted waist overalls. Another back pocket was added in 1901.
When Levi Strauss died on September 26, 1902 at the age of 73, the City of San Francisco declared a business holiday so that community business leaders could attend the funeral. His fortune was estimated to be worth around six million dollars. His will provided money to charities serving children and the poor. Since he had no children, he left the business to his four nephews, Jacob, Sigmund, Louis and Abraham Stern.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the headquarters and two factories along with most of the company’s records. The company extended credit to its customers and paid employee salaries until a new factory was built at 250 Valencia Street in San Francisco.
In 1922, belt loops were added for workmen who wanted to wear the overalls with a belt. In 1927, Cone Mills developed a ten ounce red selvage denim for 501 jeans and Levi’s waist overalls became a top selling brand. “Levi’s” was registered as a trademark in the late 1920’s.
The Depression crushed demand for the company’s products, but employees held onto their jobs by working reduced schedules. During this time the cowboy was adopted as the company’s advertising icon.
By 1936 the red Tab was placed onto the right back pocket and the word Levi’s was stitched in white on one side to distinguish it from other clothing manufacturers. The back pockets were eventually sown to cover the rivets in order to prevent the rivets from damaging furniture. Suspender buttons were also removed although snap-on buttons were available as an option.
During World War II the War Production Board mandated the conservation of raw materials which necessitated the removal of the crotch rivet, watch pocket rivets, back cinch and Arcuate stitching. (The Arcuate stitching design was registered as a trademark in 1943.)
In 1947, the post war version of the 501 jeans came off the production line. The cinch was gone, the rivets were put back on the watch pocket and the Arcuate was stitched with a double needle machine giving it a diamond shape.
In the 1950’s, teenagers began referring to Levi’s as “jeans” and the word Levi’s was stitched onto both sides of the red tab. A zippered version was introduced and called 501Z and the leather patch was replaced by a Two Horse patch made of cardstock. Card stock was cheap and held up well in washing machines.
In 1958, Levi jeans were displayed at the World’s Fair in Brussels and in 1959 they were exhibited at the American Fashion Industries presentation in Moscow. By 1960 the word “overalls” was formally replaced by “jeans” in labels and advertising. Pre shrunk jeans were introduced in 1961 and the rivets on the back pockets were replaced with bar tacking.
Sta-Prest, the first wrinkle free slacks, was introduced in 1964 and Levi jeans became part of the prestigious Smithsonian institution. The first Levi’s television commercial was aired in 1966 and by 1967 the “batwing” was adapted as the new Levi’s logo.
Bell bottoms, corduroy and polyester pants were introduced in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In 1971 the word “Levi’s” on the red tab was stitched in white with a capital “L” only and by the 1980’s Cone Mills used 60” looms to produce XXX denim.
Other important Levi milestones include:
- The introduction of 501 jeans for women in 1981.
- The introduction of Dockers and Khakis in 1986.
- The introduction of Never Iron and Thermal Adapt by Dockers in 2004.
- The launch of the Premium Made and Crafted collection in 2009.
- And the introduction of the Alpha Khaki in 2011 which combines the best characteristics of denim and khaki.
With products sold in over one hundred countries around the world, Levi Strauss & Co. continues to be a global icon of American culture, style and fashion!