Back Story

Levis: The pants that changed the way the world dresses


Jacob W. Davis, of Reno, Nevada, Assignor to himself and Levi Strauss & Company, of San Francisco, California. Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings: To all whom it may concern. Be it known that I, Jacob W. Davis, of Reno, county of Washoe and State of Nevada, have invented an Improvement in Fastening seams; and do hereby declare the following description and accompanying drawing are sufficient to enable a person skilled in the art or science to which it most nearly appertains to make and use my said invention or improvement without further invention or experiment. My invention relates to a fastening for pocket-openings whereby; the sewed seams are prevented from ripping or starting from frequent pressure or strain thereon; and it consists in the employment of a metal rivet or eyelet at each edge of the pocket-opening, to prevent the ripping of the seam at those points. The rivet or eyelet is so fastened in the seam as to bind the two parts of cloth which the seam unites together, so that it shall prevent the strain or pressure from coming upon the thread with which the seam is sewed.


What is it about blue jeans? Some are distressed with holes in the knees, and worn proudly by the hip, the hipsters, the hip-hoppers, and just plain folks. Blue jeans are the ubiquitous fashion statement, much like the little black dress and the boxer briefs. But, unlike the little black dress and boxer briefs, blue jeans are unisex and universal. Doubtless, when we colonize Mars, blue jeans will be the space uniform.


Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria in 1829. When he was 17, he and his sisters immigrated to New York where two older brothers owned a wholesale dry goods business. Strauss learned the trade and in 1853, filled with tales of the California Gold Rush, made his way to San Francisco. He founded his own wholesale dry goods business and also represented the family’s New York firm. That was the beginning of Levi Strauss & Company. It sold clothing, blankets, handkerchiefs, and other items to small general stores in the American West.


In 1872, or thereabouts, Jacob W. Davis, a tailor, had invented a way of relieving stress on the pockets of what were then known as waist overalls. One day the wife of a local laborer in Reno asked the tailor to make a pair of pants for her husband that would not fall apart from use. Davis came up with the idea of placing metal rivets at points of stress like the pocket corners and the bottom of the fly. The riveted pants were a success. So Davis began applying the rivets to the strain points, and he felt sure he could get a U.S. patent on the concept. He needed a partner to help purchase the patent, and asked Strauss to join him in the venture. Strauss was enthusiastic about the idea, and the pair applied for the patent and got it. The year was 1873, and that’s how Levi’s blue jeans were born, almost 150 years ago.


Here are a few more significant dates in the Levi’s saga.

1886: The two-horse logo was first branded onto the leather patch sewn onto the waist of the jeans.

1902: Strauss died at 73, and newspapers described him as a merchant philanthropist.

1906: The San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Levi Strauss & Company headquarters on San Francisco’s Battery Street, which was rebuilt.

1936: The iconic small red tab with “Levi’s” in capital letters stitched in white was placed in the seam of the right back pocket.

1937: The back pockets are sewn to cover the rivets in response to complaints they scratched furniture and saddles.

1941: The crotch rivet was removed. The story goes like this: Levi’s-clad cowboys crouching close to a campfire on cold nights received a painful shock when the crotch rivet heated and burned their private parts. That’s the story anyway.

1960: The company replaced the word “overalls” with “jeans” on all labels.

Editor’s note: This Back Story is adapted from a chapter in Ernest Beyl’s new book, San Francisco Appetites and Afterthoughts: In Search of the Good Life by the Golden Gate, Grizzly Peak Press, 2016, $17.95.

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