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Levi Strauss and His Company

by Susan Saperstein

As historians, we like to correct others’ misconceptions of history. Here are some myths about Levi Strauss and his company:

• Levi Strauss invented jeans when peddling tent canvas material in gold camps. The miners asked for strong pants, and he made pants out of the canvas and used rivets on the pockets.

• The company always made jeans.

• The name denim comes from a town in France named Nimes.

• These pants with the riveted pockets were always called jeans.

The actual history goes like this:

• A tailor named Jacob Davis was the inventor of the pants later known as Levi’s or jeans. He approached Levi Strauss & Co. with his idea to secure a patent. It is likely that Davis thought that the company could give him the business network needed to market his idea. Ben Davis, his grandson, later founded the Ben Davis Manufacturing Company – still owned by the Davis family.

• The company started out selling dry goods such as clothing, buttons, bedding, and other textiles to small stores in the West in the early 1850s. The patent for the pants was not granted until 1873.

• There was a cloth called serge de Nimes and another one called nim in 17th century France. However, both were made of a wool blend rather than cotton. The name denim could be a mistranslation of the town of Nimes, but no one really knows. You can read ‘”A Short History of Denim” at http://www .levistrauss.com.

• Actually, they were known as waist overalls in the beginning. But as they became commonly known as Levi’s, the name was registered as a trademark in 1928. Many of us part-time historians might envy the job of Lynn Downey, Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. She landed this job in 1989 when company Chairman Robert Haas, a great-great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss, wanted to take care of the company’s warehouse of historical items. She works with Stacia Fink, Archivist. The company archives now contain documents, 4,500 photographs, posters, artifacts, and 5,000 garments--including the oldest known existing pair of Levi’s, dating from 1879. (All you packrats—look through closets—Lynn would love to see something older.) The archives are used to help designers for the Levi Vintage Clothing line, and marketing personnel.

The company archives are not open to the public, and the museum at the old factory on Valencia Street is now closed. But you can go to the Visitor’s Center in the lobby at the corporate location on Battery Street to see displays from the archives. These offer a condensed view of San Francisco Gold Rush mercantilism and post-1906 Earthquake survival seen through one company’s experience. One of the lobby’s kiosks shows the history of Strauss, Davis, and the company. It also displays an old Singer sewing machine used at the Valencia Street factory and prizes won at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition for waist overalls and an outfit for children called Koveralls.

Another area displays a history of clothing made throughout the years. The Letters Pavilion displays letters from fans, including one from a man who hijacked an airplane in 1969 and was promptly put in a Cuban prison. After wearing his pants for over 100 days in prison, he later wrote the company, “I highly recommend ‘Mr. Levis’ to anyone who is confined or travels a lot.”

Strauss, born Loeb Strauss, came to the United States from Bavaria in 1847. He applied for citizenship almost immediately and changed his name to Levi (probably to better assimilate). He never married, but was very close to his family, and left the company to his four nephews, Jacob, Louis, Abraham, and Sigmund Stern.

Another little-known fact: we can thank Levi’s for the San Francisco Public Library’s History Center…sort of. Its official name is the Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center. Koshland, a San Francisco philanthropist whose photograph can be seen in the History Center, was an executive with the company.

By the way, Lynn loves her job and says she “will probably die with her boots on in the archive.” The Visitor’s Center is located at their corporate location at 1155 Battery Street and is open every day, except holidays, from 10 am to 5 pm.

Credits:

• Lynn Downey, Historian for Levi Strauss & Co.

• levistrauss.com/Heritage/

• Our City, the Jews of San Francisco, Irena Narell

Historic photo of Levi Strauss courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library.

Photos of Panama Pacific International Exhibition booth and Freedom-Alls on page courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co

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Levi Strauss, 1829-1902

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Pan-Pacific International exhibit booth where Koveralls were made during the fair

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Advertisement for Freedom-Alls, a one piece garment for women dating from 1918

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