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Monday, May 20, 2019

May 20, 2019: As American as Blue Jeans: Levi Strauss

[On May 20, 1873 dry goods retailer Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis received a patent for work pants reinforced with metal rivets, and blue jeans were born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Strauss and a few other contexts for those uniquely American articles of clothing!]
On three exemplary stages to the blue jean mogul’s American story.
Levi Strauss was born Loeb Strauss, into a Jewish family in Buttenheim, Bavaria (part of the era’s German Confederation) in 1829. When he was still a boy his two older brothers Jonas and Louis immigrated to the United States and started a successful New York City dry goods and clothing business, J. Strauss Brother & Co.; in 1847, when Levi was 18, he, his mother, and his two sisters immigrated (in steerage, natch) to join the brothers, and he soon changed his name to Levi. The development of New York City Jewish American communities that were deeply intertwined with the city’s and nation’s dry goods and garment trades is often seen as a late 19th century phenomenon (the era in which Abraham Cahan’s short story “A Sweatshop Romance” ([1898] and novel The Rise of David Levinsky [1917], two of the earliest literary chronicles in English of those histories, are set). But Strauss’s family and story remind us that these histories and communities were developing throughout the 19th century, and indeed well before. Since New York City itself developed as a major metropolis in many ways in those antebellum decades, it’s fair to say that immigrant families and communities like these were really foundational contributors to such urban growth, rather than the later additions to already-established urban spaces that they are often described as.
Levi himself wasn’t in New York for too long, however; the company’s success led him first to Louisville (where the family were opening a new branch, along with another in St. Louis opened by his sister Fanny) and then in 1854 to San Francisco, where he opened his own wholesale business, Levi Strauss & Co. The Gold Rush era was by then fully underway, California had finally been annexed into the United States, and San Francisco was becoming the urban center of both those unfolding American historical trends. Much of the story of the early- to mid-19th century in the United States is of the nation’s Westward Expansion, running through Midwestern communities like Louisville and (especially, thanks to its image as the Gateway to the West) St. Louis and all the way to the Pacific. While those histories are often still narrated through images of rugged pioneers and lawless mining towns and the like, the truth (along with all the non-Anglo cultural communities generally left out of those images, of course) is that expansion required the development of full communities and cities, and those urban worlds required, among many other things, wholesale retailers. Levi Strauss would become one of the most famous such Western retailers, but he was one of many in this mid-century moment.
Strauss’s fame represents a third, and particularly complex, exemplary side to his American story, however. From what I can tell, the idea for blue jeans really came from Jacob Davis, another Jewish immigrant to the United States (from Latvia, where he was born Jacob Youphes in 1831 before immigrating in 1854 and changing his name) who had been working as both a wholesaler and a tailor throughout the West before settling in Reno in 1868. Davis bought his cloth and other dry goods from Strauss, and when he came up with the idea for cotton denim pants reinforced with copper rivets to make them more robust for work environments, he went to Levi for financial backing. That meant that Levi Strauss & Co. were on the 1873 patent application along with Davis; after they received the patent, Levi brought Davis to San Francisco to manage his manufacturing plant there. By the time of his 1908 death, Davis had certainly done well, but as an employee of Levi Strauss & Co., the firm that would become and remains synonymous with the blue jeans that Davis invented. This certainly doesn’t reach the level of Thomas Edison and Lewis Latimer, but it’s in that ballpark: an invention credited not to the inventor himself, but to the business mogul who employed, profited from, and achieved eternal notoriety from the inventor and his ideas. Ain’t that America?
Next blue jean studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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