The Origins of Levi Strauss Blue Jeans

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Lowly blue jeans got their start in California's gold camps.

postcardfeaturing.jpg

A postcard featuring the Levi Strauss exhibit at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition held on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Hand-carved figures of famous rodeo stars of the day were dressed in miniature Levi’s. Called the “Electric Rodeo,” the creation was described by Strauss as “A 100-percent mechanical rodeo. It moves. It talks … (It’s) the talk of Treasure Island.”

Content Tools

I wore bib overalls to school and around the farm until I was probably 12 or 13 years old. Then, considering myself quite grown up, I insisted on Levi's and wore them all through high school (Mom didn't complain because Levi's were cheap) and up until I left for the Army. When I went to work for the Ohio Bell Telephone Co., they frowned on overalls and I wore tan or gray work pants until I was given a job where I had to "dress up." I usually wore blue jeans around the house and, although I've had Carhartt, Lee, Dickey, Wrangler, Rustler and even Penney's Plain Pocket jeans over the years, the products of Levi Strauss (although maybe a little more expensive) always seemed to fit better and wear longer than the others.

Levi's got started in California a few years after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1849. A man named Loeb Strauss, born in Bavaria in 1829, left Germany in 1847 and immigrated to New York where his older half-brothers ran a wholesale dry goods store. Loeb worked in the business, changed his first name to Levi, and became an American citizen.

In 1853, Levi Strauss turned up in the boom town of San Francisco, bringing a large supply of canvas he figured the gold miners would need for tents and wagon covers. However, the miners needed trousers more than tents, and the pants had to be tough, so Strauss had his canvas cut and sewn into trousers, which the miners called Levi's. The new pants wore like iron, but were stiff and chafed the miner's tender bottoms.

So, Strauss switched from canvas to a heavy cloth known as denim, which was (and still is) a twill cotton fabric woven with a white warp and an indigo-dyed woof. It is strong, long-wearing and ideal for work clothing. The word denim supposedly comes from a similar fabric developed in Nimes, France, and called "Serge de Nimes."

The story of how Levi's acquired copper rivets at strain points goes like this: An old prospector known as "Alkali Ike," who worked the hills around Virginia City, Nev., had his pants made by Reno tailor Jacob Davis. Ike must have been a pretty good prospector because his pants pockets usually bulged with nuggets. On infrequent visits to his tailor in Reno, Ike complained bitterly about the way the pockets of his trousers tore out under the weight of the gold.

Davis, tiring of the complaints, got some copper wire and made rivets which he used to reinforce the pockets of Ike's pants. The idea worked, Ike's pockets stayed whole and Davis decided he should patent his idea.

Lacking the $68 necessary to file for a patent, Davis contacted Strauss in San Francisco, from whom he had long bought bolts of the denim cloth from which he made his pants.

Strauss, a good businessman, saw the potential of Davis' rivet idea and financed the patent, which was issued on May 20, 1873. Davis let Strauss use the patent and the first riveted Levi denim pants were made in 1873, quickly becoming the most popular garb for ranchers, cowboys and miners in the Western states. The Strauss/Davis patent expired in about 1891 and other overall manufacturers began to make riveted pants.

The Levi Strauss Co. marketed its "waist overalls," as they were called (other manufacturers called them "band overalls," "cowboy pants" and "band top pants"), only in the West until after World War II. By then, the popularity of Western movies had introduced the rest of the country to the denim pants adorning such stars as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Alan Ladd, and the demand for Levi's spread across the country.

During the 1950s, teenagers (like me) adopted Levi's almost as a uniform, partly to rebel against parental authority and the customs of the day requiring one to always be dressed up when out in public, and partly because they were comfortable and looked cool. A pair of Levi's, bought long enough in the legs to allow them to be rolled twice into a 3-inch cuff, along with penny loafers, white socks and a colorful shirt, made me one of the many similarly dressed cool dudes strutting through the halls of good old Beaver Falls High School.

Ragged denim overalls, by now called "blue jeans," were worn by every self-respecting hippy and flower child during the protests, acid trips and rock concerts of the 1960s. By the 1970s and '80s, blue jeans had morphed into designer jeans, often adorned with embroidery and even rhinestones, and had become high fashion items with prices to match. That was probably about the time the old familiar fit and quality began to slide.

Today blue jeans have become baggy and (in my opinion) ill fitting, and are pre-washed so much that they are half worn out when you buy them new. In fact, not long ago I saw a large display of blue jeans in the window of a trendy store in the mall. Not only did they wear ridiculously high price tags, they were faded, torn and frayed, and looked as though they came straight from someone's ragbag.

Times change and the last two pairs of Levi's I bought don't fit worth a hoot. So, no more high-priced Levi's for me. In spite of the brand's long and proud heritage as rugged work wear, I'll stick to jeans from Lee, Wrangler or Dickey, that cost less, fit better and last just as long.

That's enough of my whining. Here's hoping Santa brought everyone a well-fitting pair of waist overalls, and that you all have a safe, happy and healthy 2007!

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net