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From a historian’s perspective, the invention of the blue jean is one of the most iconic stories about a team of humble immigrants who completely changed American culture. Virtually every American from coast to coast has at least one pair of blue jeans hanging in their closet right now, but before Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a patent for their unique concept—riveted pants—this comfortable and casual wardrobe staple was unheard of.
The idea came to Latvian-born Davis while he was manufacturing and tailoring pants in Reno, Nevada. Soon after, he approached his fabric supplier Strauss, then working in San Francisco, and invited him to become his business partner. On May 20, 1873, a patent was issued to the partners, and history was made.
The Early History
Levi Strauss was born in Bavaria and worked as a dry-goods merchant with his brother before moving to San Francisco at the age of 24. His intention was to open a West Coast branch of his family’s New York-based business, but over the following two decades, Strauss accomplished much more than he could ever have dreamed. He truly represented the ideal image of a hardworking immigrant who chased the American dream and watched it pay off in the end.
One of Strauss’ frequent customers was Jacob Davis, whose tailor shop in Reno was fairly modest. When a Nevadan laborer’s wife approached him with a simple request—design a pair of work pants that would not easily rip, tear, or fall apart during his long and strenuous shifts—Davis came up with the idea for a riveted pair of pants. He designed and manufactured the first pair of what we now know as classic, all-American blue jeans, and the local community went wild.
It wasn’t long after that Davis, suspecting he could make a significant profit on his idea, contacted Strauss, who had supplied him with the fabric for the first pair of jeans. The two went into business together, obtained their now-famous patent, and created the most popular piece of clothing in the world.
1890 marked the year that the classic “501” lot number became popularized, and the year that Strauss’ four nephews took over the company. Under Strauss’ supervision, they learned how to carry on the legacy of the Levi’s brand with pride. Levi Strauss and Co. set a high ethical standard for their business, integrating sewing factories and offices long before it was legally required—and writing the first ever code of conduct that ensured that working environments were safe and comfortable for all of their employees.
In September 1902, Levi Strauss passed away, leaving behind a legacy that won’t soon fade. At the time of his death, he had amassed an estate worth $6 million and was considered one of San Francisco’s most significant Jewish philanthropists due to his involvement in such charities as the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the Hebrew Board of Relief. During his life, he served as director of the Nevada Bank and was co-owner of the Mission and Pacific Woollen Mills.
Today, Chip Bergh, the president and CEO of Levi Strauss and Co., operates the business, which is still headquartered in the Bay Area of California. Ethics continue to be highly important to the company, and employees at all levels are passionate about creating effortlessly stylish, chic, and traditional American blue jeans.
Popular apparel manufactured by the company fall under four different brands: Levi’s, Dockers, Signature, and Denizen. Nowadays, Levi’s are synonymous with Western culture, and represent the strong work ethic of the American people. Every time you wear a pair of Levi’s, you can think of Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, two young visionaries who sought to provide workers with a comfortable alternative to traditional work pants—and ended up changing American style forever.