The Origins of Levi Strauss Blue Jeans

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


| February 2007



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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.”

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.