The True Inventor of Blue Jeans
No article of clothing better represents America than a pair of denim jeans.
The birth of this ubiquitous apparel took place almost 150 years ago (1873). 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 (Levi) 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 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. 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 United States, he was called Jacob Davis. His first job was as a journeyman tailor, working in New York for a time before traveling to Maine and the Northwest.
Davis heard news of the gold rush in western Canada and decided to try his hand at goldmining. When panning for gold netted him little, Davis married and settled down. Nine years later, he and his wife decided to move to Nevada. Davis ran a cigar store in Virginia City, and then in 1868 the family moved to Reno where Davis got a job helping to set up a brewery for Frederick Hertlein.
The brewery failed, which left Hertlein and Davis with nothing. Davis returned to his most reliable skill, tailoring. By this time, Davis observed a growing need for outdoor supplies for the surveyors and railroad workers arriving in the area. Using his sewing skills, he began making items like tents and horse blankets.
Davis needed sturdy material for these products. 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 woven over and under two or more warp yarns. This 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. Soon the news about these great pants spread throughout the community.
Davis had more orders than he could fill. In the following 18 months, he made and sold 200 pairs of heavy work pants. He made pants in both the duck twill as well as denim. The denim soon won customer favor as the dark color looked better for longer.
The influx of workers brought many companies to the west to make work clothes. Some of them began to copy Davis’ pants, using the rivet design. Davis did not want to lose his rights to the pattern. He applied for a patent but was turned down. His English was poor, and it is conceivable that the patent office didn’t understand the merit of what he was doing.
Davis wanted a patent but worried about the time it would take for him to start the process again.
He decided to approach his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, for help.
Davis wrote a letter in the best English he could. While the spelling is unconventional, his intent is clear: Jacob Davis wanted to be the sole patent holder.
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.”
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. He helped plan shirt lines as well as pants, and he still oversaw 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.
Blue Jeans: 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. However, over time, people began to assume that jeans were invented by Levi Strauss. (The name was so well known 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.
Remembering Davis and Strauss
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.
To read about another inventor of the West, read about King Gillette.
Another good story is about the woman who invented the bra: Caresse Crosby.