Happy Birthday, Blue Jeans!

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In 1853, with the California Gold Rush in full swing, a 24-year-old German-Jewish immigrant named Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco. Strauss' brothers ran a dry goods business in New York City, and he headed west to open a California branch. He brought plenty of rough canvas for making tents and wagon covers, but his early customers told him he should have brought pants, since a good strong pair was hard to find in mining towns.

Strauss started making pants from the canvas, but miners complained that they chafed. Strauss switched to a softer twilled cotton cloth, originally made in Nîmes, France, called "serge de Nîmes" (which would later become known as denim) and did brisk business selling these pants to miners.

Jacob Davis, a Latvian-born tailor from Reno, Nevada, was a regular customer of Levi Strauss & Co.'s wholesale house. In 1870, a woman came to Davis' shop asking for a pair of pants, "made as strong as possible," for her husband, a large man who tended to wear his pants out quickly. Davis decided to reinforce the pocket corners, where pants receive a lot of stress, with some of the copper rivets he used to attach straps to horse blankets. The woman and her husband liked the pants, so Davis decided to make more and market them. Within eighteen months, he had sold over 200 pairs of riveted pants and was beginning to worry that someone might steal his idea. He needed a patent, but didn't have the $68 needed to apply for one, so he sought out a business partner. (Davis was apparently familiar with both the patenting process and not having a lot of money. He had previously applied for patents for a steam-powered canal boat and a steam-powered ore crusher, and when he first settled in Reno he lost all his money when brewery he had invested in went under.)

In 1872, he wrote to Levi Strauss, described the success of riveted pants and asked if Strauss would like to apply for, and hold, the patent with him. Strauss agreed, and on May 20, 1873, the two men received U.S. Patent No. 139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for an "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings."

Though Genoese sailors had been wearing denim trousers as far back as the mid-18th century, that patent was the beginning of jeans' domination of style across the world. Today we wish blue jeans a happy 136th birthday with a few trivia nuggets:

"¢ Levi Strauss' jeans, both pre- and post-rivet, were dyed with indigo because (1) indigo was inexpensive and readily available, and (2) dark blue denim hid dirt and stains well, which was great for Strauss' miner customers. The seams were sewn with orange thread to match the color of Davis' copper rivets.

levis.jpg"¢ Early jeans had the rivets on both the front and back pockets, but because of complaints that they scratched saddles and chairs, the rear ones were covered up in 1937 and removed in 1967. Today the rear pockets are strengthened by reinforced corner stitching.

"¢ The double row of stitching across the back pockets of Levi's jeans "“ known as the Arcuate stitching design "“ has been there since the earliest pairs made in 1873. For a few years, the design was hand painted on the pockets of each pair of pants when the government rationed certain materials, like thread, during WWII.

"¢ A pair of Levi's 501 jeans is composed of 1¾ yards of denim, 213 yards of thread, five buttons and six rivets and requires 37 separate sewing operations during manufacture.

"¢ In 1997, Levi Strauss & Co. paid $25,000 for a pair of 100-year-old jeans found in an old Colorado mine. This oldest known pair of Levi's jeans went on display in the company museum.

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May 20, 2009 - 7:52am
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