A little known fact but today marks the 185th birthday of Levi Strauss, founder of denim label Levi's and often credited as the original inventor of blue jeans. Born on this day in 1829, Strauss immigrated from the Kingdom of Bavaria (now a state within Germany) to the United States with his family around the age of 18. Then as now, Strauss, like all other immigrants, was searching for an opportunity to better his life. He found it in the California Gold Rush and soon opened a dry goods store of his own in San Francisco at age 24. In 1872, another opportunity came in the form of a letter by Reno-based tailor Jacob Davis. In it, Davis told of a new way to reinforce workwear, particularly the pants, with metal rivets. But Davis needed a business partner in order to secure a patent to his new invention. Strauss agreed and on May 20, 1873, both men received patent #139,121 for their invention from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
In celebration of Levi Strauss' 185th birthday, the company he founded over a century ago received a few images from its archive to showcase the influences his creation had on American culture over the years...
This in-store advertising card is a medley of wartime messages. The strapping cowboy is not a soldier, but is wearing his Levi’s® jeans to herd the cattle that will feed our boys overseas. And discreetly placed on the card is the simple but powerful phrase from the period: “Buy War Bonds.”
It may have been the Cold War, but Levi’s® jeans found their way to Moscow in 1959, as part of an international trade fair. Local “cowboys” dressed up in the products and the jeans were one of the most-mobbed displays at the fair.
Levi Strauss as he appeared around 1890, at the height of his business success and influence in San Francisco and throughout the West. The young immigrant who came to Gold Rush San Francisco in 1853 had become one of the city’s most respected philanthropists and merchants. In 1873, it was his vision that gave birth to the first blue jean, in collaboration with another immigrant, the Latvian tailor Jacob Davis.
The staff of Levi Strauss & Co. poses proudly in the 1880s, lined up in front of the multi-storied headquarters, home to the wholesale dry goods business and the ever-expanding trade in the famous jeans, jackets, and work shirts made just a few blocks away at the company’s factory. About twenty years later, this building would survive the earthquake of April 18, 1906, but not the firestorm which followed.
During World War II clothing manufacturers – including Levi Strauss & Co. – had to cut back on their production to save raw materials for the war effort. Even when the war was over, it took time to get factories back up to speed. When a store got its quota of Levi’s® jeans and jackets onto its shelves, they were mobbed by denim-deprived locals. This store was in Berkeley, California.
Trade cards like this example were gifts with purchase back in the 1890s. Any company which made a consumer product also made trade cards, which were handed out to customers, who then pasted them into scrapbooks. In the 19th century, it wasn’t just about baseball cards.
Miners were among the first customers for the new, riveted workwear, which debuted in 1873. These hardy fellows are at the La Grange Mine in California, posing for a photo in their dirty Levi’s® duds.
Women loved denim in the 1930s West. These cowgirls, representing a California rodeo, proudly sport their Levi’s® jeans.
The 501® jean was the original, made for the working men of the West, born in 1873. But Levi Strauss & Co. knew that there were many kinds of working men, and in the 1880s unveiled this style, made with a pocket on the thigh for a folding ruler.
By 1900 Levi Strauss & Co. was printing and sending out catalogs to its retailers all over the West, which carried not only the company’s famed copper-riveted clothing, but also the fine dry goods still being wholesaled by the company. A catalog was a great place for innovative advertising, and this classic image appeared on the inside cover of a catalog from 1905.
By the early 1960s word of the famous Levi’s® jeans had trickled over to Europe, and the company began to show the product at trade fairs. This one, featuring Levi’s® jeans and advertising artfully displayed on what looks like a Citröen, was called the Zurich City Fair.