Innovation

Levi Strauss Got Rich From Blue Jeans, But He Didn’t Invent Them

Here’s the story of how an American institution came about

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

We’ve all heard of Levi Strauss. He’s the German immigrant who made his fortune during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s the old-fashioned way: selling things like clothing and blankets to the dreamers hoping to hit the mother lode. While they were toiling away in the mountains with gold pans, eating plates of $10 beans over an open fire, old Levi was tucking into a nice plate of baked salmon in port wine sauce in the dining room of San Francisco’s Tehama Hotel.

Okay, so it’s photoshopped. Sue me. (Source: newsthump.com)

Without Strauss’s marketing skills, it’s unlikely that blue jeans would still be worn by people from all walks of life who want to rock a chill vibe. It wouldn’t surprise me if Pope Francis has a pair stashed away for vacays at Castel Gandolfo.

Strauss’s talent was for business. He didn’t invent anything, and he didn’t get rich overnight, but when he died in 1902, he left his very lucky nephews a fortune worth more than $177 million in today’s dollars. In 2018, the company that bears his name reported assets of over $3.5 billion.

Blue jeans haven’t been around as long as you may think

Jacob W. Davis (Source: public domain)

Most people assume that Levi Strauss sold blue jeans during the gold rush, but the fact is that they didn’t come into his life until much later, in 1873.

One of his customers was a Latvian immigrant named Jacob W. Davis, who had a tailor shop in Reno, Nevada. Davis made tents, horse blankets, and wagon covers for railroad workers.

Levi Strauss supplied Davis with cotton duck cloth and cotton denim. Because these were subject to rough treatment, Davis reinforced the stitching with copper rivets. In December of 1870, one of his female customers asked him to make a pair of sturdy working pants for her husband, a woodcutter.

Figure from US Patent №139,121, May 20. 1873 (Source: US Patent Office)

Davis decided to reinforce the pants with the copper rivets he used on his other products. The first pair he made was in duck cotton.

His satisfied customer spread the word, and soon all the workers wanted a pair. In 1871, he began making them in cotton denim. (It was cheaper.) Demand went through the roof. Davis needed financing to expand on his success. Strauss came to mind.

Partners, sort of

Late 1880s view of Levi Strauss factory (Source: Levis Strauss Archives)

Davis wrote to Strauss proposing that they apply for a patent together, stating that, due to his large family, he couldn’t afford the $68 fee at the moment. He also sent two samples of the riveted pants, one in duck and one in denim.

In the letter, Davis expresses concern that if the patent isn’t filed soon, it won’t be long before imitators flood the market. Strauss agreed to back him.

On May 20. 1873, the U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for “Improvements in fastening pocket openings” in the names of Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss and Company. Strauss set up a large tailor shop for sewing the pants they called “waist overalls” in San Francisco and hired Davis to manage it.

Fun fact: the term “blue jeans” was first used to describe French Revolutionary War uniforms made of blue cloth. At some point, people started calling the pants made by Levi Strauss and Company by the same name, and also by the shorter and more to the point “Levis.”

Reproduction of Levi’s 1878 pants from the Levi’s Vintage Clothing (LVC) collection. (Source: Unionmade)

Eventually, Levi Strauss expanded the operation to a factory employing over 500 women, still under the watchful eye of Davis. Ever concerned about imitators, Davis incorporated an orange-stitched arcuate design to the back pocket of the jeans to distinguish them from imitators. He worked for the company until his death in 1908.

Jacob’s legacy

Levi Strauss was a lifelong bachelor. Jacob Davis had a wife and six children. Whatever money he made working for Strauss didn’t last long. In 1935, Jacob Davis’s son Simon and his grandson Benjamin Davis decided to found their own clothing line in San Francisco. (They put the company in Ben’s name because Simon had credit issues.)

Photo by Kevin Wilson (Source: https://somewhereofficial.com/)

Ben Davis produces high-quality workwear in San Francisco. Originally only worn by industrial industry and dock workers, the brand has become popular with hipsters and rap artists.

The company is currently run by Ben’s son Frank. You can read the letter that Jacob Davis sent Levi Strauss asking for backing on the company website.

So it looks like things worked out okay for the Davis family after all.

“Devil without a cause and I’m back; with the beaver hats and Ben Davis slacks.” — Kid Rock

©2021, Denise Shelton. All rights reserved.

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