On this day in 1873, San Francisco businessman Levi Strauss and Reno, Nevada, tailor Jacob Davis are awarded a patent to create work pants reinforced with metal rivets, marking the birth of one of the world’s most famous garments: blue jeans. Since that time, Levi’s have been worn by people of all walks of life, from miners to Nobel Prize laureates, presidents and regents to reprobates; Albert Einstein’s famous leather Levi’s jacket from the 1930’s recently sold at auction house Christie’s for nearly $150,000.
Levi Strauss & Co. was founded in 1853 when young German immigrant Levi Strauss emigrated from Buttenheim, Bavaria, to San Francisco, intending to open a west coast branch of his brothers’ New York dry goods business. The company imported fine goods including clothing, bedding, combs, purses, and handkerchiefs. Strauss soon designed and manufactured tents and jeans, and was eventually sought out by Jacob Davis, a Latvian Jewish immigrant and Reno tailor who frequently purchased bolts of cloth made from Strauss’s wholesale denim.
After one of Davis’s customers kept purchasing cloth to reinforce torn pants, Davis had an idea to use copper rivets to reinforce the points of strain, such as on the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly. Davis lacked the capital to purchase a patent, and wrote to Strauss suggesting they go into business together. The firm began manufacturing denim overalls in the 1870’s and created their first pair of Levi’s 501 Jeans in the 1890’s.
Modern jeans began to appear in the 1920’s, but sales were largely confined to the working people of the western states, such as cowboys, lumberjacks, and railroaders. Levi’s jeans were first introduced to the East during the dude ranch craze of the 1930’s. Business got an additional boost in World War 2, when blue jeans were declared an essential commodity and were sold only to the millions engaged in American defense work.
Between the 1950’s and 1980’s, Levi’s jeans became popular among a wide range of youth subcultures, including greasers, mods, rockers, and hippies. In the early 70’s, hapless high-schoolers would be mocked and even beaten for wearing Wranglers, Tough Skins or Plain Pockets, yet by the end of that decade, jeans from Sassoon, Sergio Valente, Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt made inroads, buoyed by disco and other crimes against nature. In the 80’s Levi’s launched the Dockers brand, sold largely through department store chains, as denim sales began to fade across the market, only to come roaring back yet again.
As for Strauss himself, he died September 26, 1902, leaving the company to his four nephews, together with an estate worth about $6 million, or $169,707,692 in 2017 dollars. As of 2016, Levi Strauss Signature jeans are sold in 110 countries touching every continent on Earth, with reported revenues of $4.6 billion; no mean feat for an Ashkenazi Jew who showed up in the US speaking little if any English at the age of 18.