Levi’s jeans are an American icon: Here is everything you ever wanted to know about the first American jean, Levi’s jeans

All about Levi’s jeans

Levi Strauss, the inventor of the blue jean, was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria on February 26, 1829. Levi was named “Loeb” at birth. After his father’s death, Loeb emigrated too New York where he met up with two of his brothers, Jonas and Louis, who had started a dry-goods business, called “J. Strauss Brother & Co”. Young Loeb soon began to learn the trade himself, and by 1850 he was known among his family and customers as “Levi”.

In January of 1853 he became an American citizen. In March, at the age of twenty-four, he arrived in San Francisco to open a west coast branch of his brothers’ New York dry goods business. Levi first conducted his business in wholesale dry goods and named his firm “Levi Strauss.” In 1863 the company was renamed “Levi Strauss & Co.”

Levi's jeans are an American icon

One of Levi’s customers was a tailor named Jacob Davis who regularly purchased bolts of cloth from the wholesale house of Levi Strauss & Co. Among Jacob’s customers was a man who kept ripping the pockets of the pants that Jacob made for him. Jacob tried to think of a way to strengthen the man’s trousers, and one day came upon the idea of putting metal rivets at the points of strain, such as on the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly. These riveted pants were an instant hit with Jacob’s customers and he worried that someone might steal this great idea. He decided he should apply for a patent on the process, but didn’t have the money that was required to file the papers. He needed a business partner and he immediately thought of Levi Strauss. Jacob wrote to Levi to suggest that the two men hold the patent together. Levi, who was a great businessman, saw the potential for this new product and agreed to Jacob’s proposal. On May 20, 1873, the two men received patent #139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Many consider that day to be the official “birthday” of blue jeans. Holding a patent on this process meant that for nearly twenty years, Levi Strauss & Co. was the only company allowed to make riveted clothing until the patent went into the public domain around 1891. When the patent expired, dozens of garment manufacturers began to imitate the original riveted clothing made popular by Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi knew that demand would be great for these riveted “waist overalls” (the old name for jeans), so Levi brought Jacob Davis to San Francisco to oversee the first west coast manufacturing facility. Initially, Davis supervised the cutting of the blue denim material and its delivery to individual seamstresses who worked out of their homes. But the demand for overalls made it impossible to maintain this system.

At first, jean cloth was made from a mixture of things. However, in the eighteenth century as trade, slave labor, and cotton plantations increased, jean cloth was made completely from cotton. The denim for the riveted work pants came from the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, a company known for the quality of its fabrics. Workers wore it because the material was very strong and it did not wear out easily. Within a very short time, all types of working men were buying the innovative new pants and spreading the word about their unrivaled durability. It was usually dyed with indigo, a dye taken from plants in the Americas and India, which made jean clothe a dark blue color.

In 1873, Levi Strauss & Co. began using the pocket stitch design. In 1886, Levi sewed a leather label on their jeans. The label showed a picture of a pair of jeans that were being pulled between two horses. This was to advertise how strong Levi jeans were: even two horses could not tear them apart. The red tab attached to the left rear pocket was created in 1936 as a means of identifying Levi’s jeans at a distance. All are registered trademarks that are still in use.

As the end of the 19th century approached, Levi stepped back from the day-to-day workings of the business, leaving it to his nephews, Jacob, Sigmund, Louis and Abraham who came into the business over the next few years. In 1890, the year that the lot number “501®” was first used to designate the denim waist overalls, Levi and his nephews officially incorporated the company. Levi died on September 27, 1902 in his sleep at the age of 73. His estate amounted to nearly $6 million, the bulk of which was left to his four nephews and other family members.

In 1935, Levi Strauss & Co. created “Lady Levi’s®”, the company’s first blue jean for women. In the 1950s, after World War II, however, Levi Strauss & Co.’s customer base changed dramatically from working adult men to leisure-loving teenage boys and their older college-age brothers who called the product “jeans.” The word might be a derivation of “Genoese,” meaning the type of fustian pants worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy. There is another possible explanation: jean and denim fabrics were both used for work wear for many decades, and “jeans pants” was a common term for an article of clothing made from jean fabric. Before 1873, Levi Strauss used to buy “jeans pants” from the Eastern part of the United States to sell in California. When the popularity of jean gave way to the even greater popularity of denim for work wear, the word “jeans” was still used as the term for the denim version of these pants.

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