San Francisco is famously a birth place of denim jeans and I just couldn’t resist to visit the Levi’s Head Quarters. Their visitors centre is super interesting and inspirational, a fantasy room filled with denim history. So, the next time you are squeezing into your favourite pair of Levi’s skinnies, remember that these pants are a direct descendant of that first pair made in California back in 1873. It was two visionary immigrants – Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis – who turned denim, thread and a little metal into the most popular wearing apparel on earth.
One of Levi’s many customers was a man named Jacob Davis. Originally from Latvia, he made his living as a tailor in Reno, Nevada. He regularly purchased bolts of cloth from the wholesale house of Levi Strauss & Co. Among Jacob’s customers was a difficult man who kept ripping the pockets of the pants that were made for him. Jacob tried to think of a way to strengthen his trousers, and one day hit upon the idea of putting metal rivets at points of strain: pocket corners, base of the button fly, etc. These riveted pants were an instant hit with everyone, and Jacob began to get worried that someone might steal this great idea. So, he decided to take out a patent on the process, but had trouble scraping together the $68 he needed to file the papers. What he needed was a business partner, and he immediately thought of Levi Strauss.
He wrote to Levi to suggest that the two men hold the patent together. Levi, being an astute businessman, saw the potential for this new product, and agreed to Jacob’s proposal. The two men received patent #139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on May 20, 1873.
Soon the first riveted clothing was made and sold. Jacob Davis was in charge of manufacturing once the company opened its two San Francisco factories. The denim for the riveted work pants came from the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, a company known for the quality of its fabrics. They made the first jeans out of denim because denim was the traditional fabric for men’s workwear, which is what the new riveted products were. Within a very short time, all types of working men were buying up the innovative new clothing, and spreading the word.
May 20, 1873 is considered to be the “birthday” of blue jeans, because although denim pants had been around as workwear for many years, it was the act of placing rivets in these traditional pants for the first time that created what we now call jeans.
Holding a patent on this process meant that Levi Strauss & Co. was the only company allowed to make riveted clothing until the patent went into the public domain. This happened in 1890, which means that from 1873 until 1890 the only riveted clothing in the world was made by LS&CO., and an entire generation of people grew up with this knowledge. Of course, when the patent ran out, dozens of garment manufacturers began to make the riveted clothing, but people knew that these were just imitations of the original.
By the 1920s, Levi’s waist overalls were the leading product in men’s work pants in the Western states. Enter the 1930s – when Western movies and the West in general captured the American imagination. Authentic cowboys wearing Levi’s jeans were elevated to mythic status, and Western clothing became synonymous with a life of independence and rugged individualism. Denim was now associated less often with laborers in general, and more as the fabric of the authentic American as symbolized by John Wayne, Gary Cooper and others. LS&CO. advertising did its part to fuel this craze, using the West’s historic preference for denim clothing to advertise Levi’s waist overalls. Easterners who wanted an authentic cowboy experience headed to the dude ranches of California, Arizona, Nevada and other states, where they purchased their first pair of Levi’s (the products were still only sold West of the Mississippi). They took these garments home to wow their friends and help spread the Western influence to the rest of the country, and even overseas.
The 1940s, wartime. American G.I.s took their favorite pairs of denim pants overseas; guarding them against the inevitable theft of valuable items. Back in the States, production of waist overalls went down as the raw materials were needed for the war effort. When the war was over, massive changes in society signalled the end of one era and the beginning of another. Denim pants became less associated with workwear and more associated with the leisure activities of prosperous post-war America.
Levi Strauss & Co. began selling its products nationally for the first time in the 1950s. Easterners and Midwesterners finally got the chance to wear real Levi’s jeans, as opposed to the products made by other manufacturers over the years. This led to many changes, within the company and on the products.
Zippers were used in the classic waist overalls for the first time in 1954. This was in response to complaints from non-Westerners who didn’t like the button fly (the jeans they were used to wearing had zippers). Some things took longer to change. One of them was the attitude that denim clothing was appropriate only for hard, physical labor. This was dramatically demonstrated to LS&CO. in 1951. Singer Bing Crosby was very fond of Levi’s jeans and was wearing his favorite pair while on a hunting trip to Canada with a friend in that year. The men tried to check into a Vancouver hotel, but because they were wearing denim, the desk clerk would not give them a room; apparently denim-clad visitors were not considered high-class enough for this hotel. Because the men were wearing Levi’s jeans, the clerk did not even bother to look past their clothing to see that he was turning away America’s most beloved singer (luckily for Bing, he was finally recognized by the bellhop).
LS&CO. heard about this, and created a denim tuxedo jacket for Bing, which they presented to him at a celebration in Elko, Nevada, where Bing was honorary mayor.
The 1950s brought great acclaim to Levi’s jeans and denim pants in general, though not in the way most company executives would like. The portrayal of denim-clad “juvenile delinquents” or, as one newspaper put it, “motorcycle boys” in films and on television during this decade led many school administrators to ban the wearing of denim in the classroom, fearing that the mere presence of denim on a teenager’s body would cause him to rebel against authority in all of its forms.
Nearly everyone in America had strong opinions about what wearing blue jeans did to young people. For example: in 1957 we ran an advertisement in a number of newspapers all over the U.S. which showed a clean-cut young boy wearing Levi’s jeans. The ad contained the slogan, “Right For School.” This ad outraged many parents and adults in general.
One woman in New Jersey wrote, “While I have to admit that this may be ‘right for school’ in San Francisco, in the west, or in some rural areas I can assure you that it is in bad taste and not right for School in the East and particularly New York…Of course, you may have different standards and perhaps your employees are permitted to wear Bermuda shorts or golf togs in your office while transacting Levi’s business!”
Interesting, isn’t it, how this woman predicted the future trend toward casual clothing in the workplace?
But even as some Americans tried to get denim out of the schools, there were just as many who believed that jeans deserved a better reputation, and pointed to the many wholesome young people who wore jeans and never got into trouble. But no matter what anyone thought or did, nothing could stop the ever-increasing demand for Levi’s jeans. As one 1958 newspaper article reported, “…about 90% of American youths wear jeans everywhere except ‘in bed and in church’ and that this is true in most sections of the country.”
Events in this decade also led the company to change the name of its most popular product. Until the 1950s we referred to the famous copper riveted pants as “overalls;” when you went into a small clothing store and asked for a pair of overalls, you were given a pair of Levi’s. However, after World War II the customer base changed dramatically, as referred to earlier: from working adult men, to leisure-loving teenage boys and their older college-age brothers. These guys called the product “jeans” – and by 1960 LS&CO. decided that it was time to adopt the name, since these new, young consumers had adopted Levi’s products.
Now how did the word “jeans” come to mean pants made out of denim? There are two schools of thought on this one. The word might be a derivation of “Genoese,” meaning the type of pants worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy. There is another explanation: jean and denim fabrics were both used for workwear for many decades, and “jeans pants” was a common term for an article of clothing made from jean fabric; Levi Strauss himself imported “jeans pants” from the Eastern part of the United States to sell in California. When the popularity of jean gave way to the even greater popularity of denim for workwear, the word “jeans” seemed to get stuck with the denim version of these pants.
From the 1950s to the present, denim and jeans have been associated with youth, with new ideas, with rebellion, with individuality. College-age men and women entered American colleges in the 1960s and, wearing their favorite pants (jeans, of course), they began to protest against the social ills plaguing the United States. Denim acquired a bad reputation yet again, and for the same reasons as it had a decade earlier: those who protest, those who rebel, those who question authority, traditional institutions and customs, wear denim.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Levi Strauss & Co. began to look at opportunities for expansion outside of the United States. During and after World War II, people in Japan, England and Germany saw Levi’s jeans for the first time, as they were worn by U.S. soldiers during their off-duty hours. There are letters in the company Archives from people who traded leather jackets and other clothing items to American G.I.s for their Levi’s jeans, and wrote to the company asking how they could get another pair. Word began to spread via individual customers, and American magazines which made their way overseas. Letters came from places as diverse as Thailand, England and Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, written by people begging us to send them a pair of the famous jeans. British teenagers would swarm the docks when American Merchant Marine ships came into port, and buy the Levi’s jeans off the men before they even had time to set foot on dry land.
By the late 1960s, the trickle of jeans into Europe and Asia had become a flood. Denim was poised to re-enter the continent which had given it birth, and it would be adopted with an enthusiasm shown to few other American products. Indeed, despite its European origins, denim was considered the quintessential American fabric, beginning even in the mid-1960s, when jeans were still a new commodity in Europe. One writer wrote prophetically in 1964: “Throughout the industrialized world denim has become a symbol of the young, active, informal, American way of life. It is equally symbolic of America’s achievements in mass production, for denim of uniform quality and superior performance is turned out by the mile in some of America’s biggest and most modern mills. Moreover, what was once a fabric only for work clothes, has now also become an important fabric for play clothes, for sportswear of all types.”
Born in Europe, denim’s function and adaptable form found a perfect home in untamed America with the invention of jeans; then, as now, denim makes our lives easier by making us comfortable; and gives us a little bit of history every time we put it on.