Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Short History of Blue Jeans

As promised yesterday, here’s a little bit of background on the development of blue jeans. I imagine that we all associate blue jeans with Levi Strauss; we all know the story to that extent. But how many of us know the name Jacob Davis – or his role in the history of jeans?

The story does begin with Levi Strauss. He was born in Germany in 1829. In 1847 his mother and sisters moved to New York City where Levi joined the dry goods business of his two brothers. A few years later, in 1853, Levi moved to San Francisco to open a branch of the business there. Since the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in January 1948, the population had boomed with a migration of miners, forty-niners, and their daughters Clementine. There were, assuredly, wives, and sons and others migrating but – oh my darlin’ – they didn’t make the final version of the song…

As the story goes, when Levi first showed up in California, a prospector asked him what he had to sell. Upon hearing that Levi was selling canvas for tents and wagon covers, the miner told him "You should have brought pants!" He couldn’t find pants that could stand up to the rugged demands of prospecting for gold. Levi converted the canvas to pants which were called "waist overalls" back then. They sold well but the fabric was not comfortable; it caused chaffing. Levi changed to denim fabric and Voila!

However, that’s not the end of the story. The dry goods business that Levi Strauss had established in San Francisco was quite successful beyond just denim waist overalls. Among other goods, Levi sold bolts of fabric. Jacob Davis, a tailor, bought such fabric from Levi. Jacob was also an immigrant. He was born in Latvia in 1834 and moved to the U.S. in 1854. Jacob made tents, horse blankets and clothing, including pants. He had one customer who was particularly hard on his pants (brings to mind my 9-year-old son…) and regularly ripped the pockets of his jeans by stuffing them with ore samples. Jacob noodled about ways to make the man’s work pants more durable and decided to borrow an idea from the reinforced horse blankets that he made: rivets! He placed rivets at the jeans’ stress points - including the pocket corners and the base of the fly.

The riveted work pants became quite popular among his customers and Jacob felt a need to protect his novel idea. Lacking the $68 patent filing fee, he proposed a patent partnership with Levi Strauss. Seeing a good opportunity in Jacob's idea, Levi agreed. Patent number 139,121, for "Fastening Pocket-Openings" and illustrated with a picture of a pickaxe-holding miner in riveted jeans, was issued on May 20, 1873. The patent was issued to Jacob Davis; Davis assigned one half of the patent to Levi Strauss.

After the patent was issued Levi hired Jacob to manage production of the riveted jeans at the Levi Strauss & Company manufacturing plant in San Francisco. Word of the great, durable, innovative pants spread and business flourished. With patent protection, Levi Strauss & Co. was the only producer of the riveted denim work pants for nearly 20 years.

Funny thing. In serving California gold prospectors in the late 1800’s, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis created something of a gold mine themselves. In 2004, annual global consumer spending for jeans was $49 billion. I’ve got to admire a man who saw the opportunities that a $68 investment could bring, nurtured that opportunity into huge financial success in his own lifetime – and a bona fide huge industry more than 100 years after his death, and used some of his financial resources for charitable purposes, beginning a tradition of philanthropy in his namesake company that continues to this day.

Speaking of philanthropy, doing good works through this company of mine is one of the tenets of its existence. That’s a good topic for my next posting. See you then.

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