The True Inventor of Blue Jeans
I recently visited the Autry National Center here in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and enjoyed their exhibit, “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic.” One of the points I learned reminded me of the article I wrote previously—-the Jewish people came West whenever one else did, during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. But unlike the many who arrived with dreams of great wealth through a gold strike, the Jewish people used their heads as they usually do. “If people are coming to California for a gold rush, they are going to need equipment and clothing.” As a result, the Jewish people came and created communities where they could succeed. Many of the others, who had only gold dust in their eyes, went home disappointed.
The True Inventor of the Blue Jeans
No article of clothing better represents America than a pair of denim jeans.
The birth of this ubiquitous apparel took place 139 years ago this week (1873) when two men received a patent on “waist overalls” reinforced with copper rivets, what we now know as blue jeans.
One of the men was Levi Strauss (1829-1902), whose name lives on through Levi Strauss & Company. The other patent recipient was Jacob Davis, the tailor who actually invented the denim pant with rivets. So what happened to Jacob Davis and why was he largely forgotten?
Loeb Strauss (1829-1902) immigrated to New York from Germany with his mother and two sisters in 1847 at the age of 18. His father and two brothers were already in New York running a wholesale dry goods business, J. Strauss Brother & Co.
As the family began hearing news of the California Gold Rush, they saw business possibilities on the West Coast. In 1853 Levi, as he had taken to calling himself, caught a steamship for San Francisco and had soon established a wholesale business there. He imported fabric, bedding, combs, and purses from the east coast branch of Strauss Brother & Company, and he created a successful business selling these items to general stores and mercantile shops in California and the West. By 1866, Strauss had expanded his headquarters and was a well-known San Francisco businessman and a well-respected member of the Jewish community.
Jacob Davis (1831-1908) was born Jacob Youphes in Latvia and arrived in New York City at the age of 23. In the U.S. he was called Jacob Davis and got his start as a journeyman tailor, working first in New York before traveling to Maine and eventually Northern California.
When the Gold Rush began in western Canada, Davis was drawn north to make his fortune. When panning for gold netted him little, Davis married and settled down, remaining in Canada for nine years. When he and his wife decided to move back to the U.S., they went to Nevada. For a time he ran a cigar store in Virginia City, and then in 1868 the family moved to Reno where Davis got a job working for proprietor Frederick Hertlien helping to set up a brewery.
Unfortunately the brewery failed, leaving Hertlein and Davis with nothing. Davis returned to his most reliable skill, tailoring, and he foresaw the importance of a new market. He felt there was a growing need for outdoor supplies for the surveyors and railroad workers who were arriving for jobs building the Central Pacific Railroad. Using his sewing skills, he began making items like tents and horse blankets.
For these products Davis needed sturdy material and he began buying ten-ounce light-colored duck and nine-ounce blue denim from wholesaler Levi Strauss. Both the duck and the denim were twill–threads are woven over and under two or more warp yarns, which produces a characteristic diagonal pattern that makes the fabric itself very strong—something that would be important later on.
In 1870 a woman entered Davis’ Reno shop and entreated him to make a sturdy pair of work pants for her husband whom she said wore out his clothing very quickly. She must have mentioned weak pocket structure; men of the time were very likely to use their pockets to hold tools, and as a result the patch pockets often ripped off.
Davis agreed to take on the project, and since the fellow did not plan to come in to be measured, Davis sent the woman off with a string and instructions as to how to measure the waist and inseam. When she returned with the measurements, they settled on a price of $3. Davis was paid in advance.
After he completed what he felt was a sturdy pair of pants, Davis noticed the copper rivets he used to attach straps to horse blankets and decided to reinforce the pockets and the bottom of the button fly. The woman picked up the pants, and soon word of the merits of the design began to spread throughout the community.
Soon Davis had more orders than he could fill. In the following 18 months he made and sold 200 pairs of heavy work pants, using both the duck twill as well as denim. The denim soon won customer favor as the dark color looked better for longer.
Given the number of businesses that had sprouted up to support the miners as well as the rail workers, there were plenty of companies making work clothes. Some of them began to copy Davis’ pants and use rivets, and Davis didn’t want to lose his rights to the design. Still operating from his shop in Reno, he applied for a patent but was turned down. He began to worry about the time it would take for him to start the process again.
He decided to approach his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, for help, and Davis wrote him a letter.
The letter contains Davis’ unconventional spelling but his intent is clear: Jacob Davis intended to be the sole patent holder but when he lost out on one of his earlier patent applications he felt he lacked time, and perhaps the know-how, to get a patent application approved.
His offer to Strauss was for “half the right to sell all such Clothing Revited according to the Patent, for all the Pacific States and Teroterous.” (A transcript of the letter is posted on the Ben Davis Company website.)
Davis intended to maintain the market in the rest of the country for himself. However, later interactions with Strauss must have been a further negotiation as Davis soon moved to San Francisco to get Strauss’ company started making the pants.
By July 1872 the two men received preliminary application approval on the patent, and on May 20, 1873 they received patent #139,121 for the “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings.”
Essentially, this patent was the birth certificate of the modern jean.
Initially, home seamstresses were used to create the product. As demand grew, Strauss added factory space and put Jacob Davis in charge of what eventually grew to be a factory of 450 employees.
Davis remained with Strauss the rest of his career, overseeing shirt lines as well as pants and still supervising the Levi Strauss factory until his death in 1908. He was replaced by his son Simon Davis who was instrumental in pulling the company together after the 1906 earthquake.
Oldest Apparel Trademark
One other change to the pants occurred in the first year and is still part of the item today. When other pant makers began to imitate the “waist overalls” as they were called, Davis added a double arch of stitching on the back of the pockets; he wanted a way to distinguish the pants from the work of competitors. That double-stitched double arch is the oldest apparel trademark still in use today.
During World War II thread for stitching was rationed, so the company painted the double arch on the pockets so that the trademark could continue.
How the Story Came to Be Simplified
Anyone who took the time to look up the patent for riveted jeans, would of course, find Jacob Davis’ name, but over time, people began to assume that jeans were invented by Levi Strauss. (So well known was the name that for a time “Levi’s” became a generic term for jeans.) Jacob Davis’ actual contribution was all but forgotten.
Then in 1974 Ann Morgan Campbell, then chief of the San Bruno branch of the National Archives, came upon the transcript of a federal court case from 1874 when Strauss and Davis were in court defending their patent. In the transcript Jacob Davis testifies to how he came to make the first pair of jeans, his trouble obtaining a patent, and how he enlisted the help of Levi Strauss. Campbell wrote up her findings for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Members of Jacob Davis’ family still live in the San Francisco area and also still own a company that specializes in sturdy work clothes. Known as the Ben Davis Company, the logo features a friendly-looking gorilla and the clothes are referred to as the King Kong of work clothes. Their tag line is “Union Made. Plenty Tough.”
The Gold in Denim
Today the Levi Strauss Company is a privately held company with over 16,000 employees and revenue that exceeds 4.5 billion dollars.
In 1993 Levi Strauss & Company launched a “Send Them Home” promotion to find the oldest pair of Levi’s in the US. The oldest pair at that time was from the 1920s, but since that time, older clothing has been found.
In 2001 a pair of jeans from 1880, known as the “Nevada,” was found, and in the last six months there were reports of a pair from 1879. Most of these old jeans are found by explorers who enter mining tunnels, not looking for gold but looking for denim. While the joy must largely be in the hunt, some of the older pairs have been valued at more than $100,000.
An early pair of Levi’s jeans is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. Fascination with these early jeans is bound to continue.
And now we know that two men must be remembered for leading the denim charge: Jacob Davis the actual inventor of the now ubiquitous work and fashion pants, and Levi Strauss the fellow who bankrolled a business so that they could dominate the market.