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Levi Strauss (1829-1902)

Blue Jeans

No item of clothing is more quintessentially American than the blue jeans invented and perfected in the mid-19th century by Levi Strauss.

In 1853, the 24 year old Strauss left New York for San Francisco, hoping to cash in on the Gold Rush that began in 1849. Along with his sister and brother-in-law, he opened a dry goods store that sold supplies to miners as well as fancy linens, etc., to the growing city.

In 1872, Levi received a letter from Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor. Davis was one of Levi Strauss' regular customers; he purchased bolts of cloth from the company to use for his own business. In his letter, Davis told about the interesting way he made pants for his customers: he placed metal rivets at the points of strain-pocket corners and the base of the fly. He didn't have the money to patent his process so he suggested that Levi pay for the paperwork and that they take out the patent together. The patent was granted on May 20, 1873, and the first blue jeans were born.

The first jeans came in two styles, indigo blue and brown cotton "duck." Unlike denim, the duck material never became soft and comfortable so it was eventually dropped from the line.

Strauss' utterly practical blue jeans were even embraced by the fashion industry. Levi's® jeans for women were first featured in Vogue magazine in 1935. "Designer jeans" eventually became so popular that in the mid-1970s Calvin Klein® jeans were garnering $12.5 million per week. Abroad, American jeans (especially Levi's® jeans) were in such demand that in Eastern Bloc countries they became an underground standard of currency.

However down to earth they may originally have been, the blue jeans invented by Levi Strauss became an international phenomenon and an icon of American culture.

[May 1997]

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