One of the founding fathers of the ‘Levi’s Jeans’ – probably the most famous pants in History – was born 187 years ago in Buttenheim (Bavaria), Germany, to Hirsch Strauss and his second wife Rebecca, both of Jewish descent.
Löb, as was his given name, was the youngest of 7 children. In 1846 his father died of tuberculosis. Driven by hardship, his mother eventually decided to emigrate with the three youngest (Löb, his sister Fanny, and his half-sister Maila), joining two of Löb’s elder half-brothers who had already left for New York earlier. There they had opened a wholesale dry goods business, called “J. Strauss Brother & Co.”, where Löb would rapidly learn the trade after arriving in 1848. By 1850, he had changed his name to what people could pronounce – ‘Levi’.
In 1853 he moved to San Francisco, drawn by the news of the Gold Rush in California. There, he opened a wholesale dry goods business in his own name, while continuing to represent his bothers’ firm on the West coast. “Levi Strauss” supplied the small stores of the gold mining communities with all the essentials in clothing, footware, fabrics, household wares, etc., and his business expanded rapidly.
In 1872, the tailor Jacob W. Davis (1831–1908) from Reno, Nevada, one of Levi’s regular customers, contacted him with the proposal to join him in a new venture: the sale of trousers that had metal rivets in places of special strain – pocket corners and at the base of the button fly – thus making them extra-resistant and particularly suitable for the labouring community in the region. Levi agreed, and on 20 May 1873 both men were granted a patent on the process of riveting pants: the blue jean was born.
The first denim work pants – then called “waist-high overalls” – had copper rivets and were still homemade. Soon the demand was such that Levi built a factory for the mass production of the famous 501® jeans. To be correct, this trademark was only attributed in 1890 to the model that was originally called ‘XX’ – a reference to its high quality and to the actual name of the denim ordered from the New Hampshire’s Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.
In 1886, the leather label with the two horses trying to rip a pair of jeans was added as a symbol of the product’s near indestructibility. In 1902, another back pocket joined the first.
When Levi Strauss peacefully died in his sleep on 26 September, 1902, he was remembered not only as an astute businessman, but rather more as a philanthropist who had generously supported educational, Jewish and charitable causes.
There is a Levi Strauss Museum at his birthplace, Buttenheim (site language: German). For a timeline go to the official Levi Strauss & Co. This site also offers further historical details about the company. Take a look at one of the oldest existing Levi’s pairs. Kate Kelly provides a more detailed account of J. W. Davis’s role in Levi’s story. A descendant of J. Davis offers a transcript of J. W. Davis’s original letter to Levi Strauss. Here is the announcement of the first Blue Jeans Jam, Reno’s largest denim event, and a short insight look after the event. There is additional historical information about jeans at the History of Jeans.