An American Icon: Levi Strauss

Baseball. Apple pie. Blue jeans. There are few things more synonymous with the American spirit. Blue jeans transcend the class divide. They can be found on everyone from high fashion models to construction workers. More than 450 million pairs are sold every year in the United States alone. 

But where did this ubiquitous symbol of Americana get its start? It all began in a small village in Germany.

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From Germany to New York

Loeb “Levi” Strauss was born February 26, 1829, in Buttenheim, Germany, a small market town nestled in the Regnitz Valley. Unfortunately, the anti-Jewish sentiment was high. The Strauss family lived a difficult life, faced with housing restrictions and additional taxes because of their beliefs. 

When the patriarch of the family died in 1845, the Strauss family began making preparations to immigrate to the United States. The eldest sons, Jonas and Louis, ran a successful dry-goods shop in New York City and could help the rest of the family begin a new life across the Atlantic. 

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They made their journey in 1847 when Levi was eighteen years old. He was invited to work in his brothers’ shop, where he learned the ins and outs of being a small business owner. It was during his time working with his brothers that he changed his name to Levi and became an American citizen. 

Strauss decided to prove his chops as a traveling peddler in Kentucky. There, he sold his brothers’ dry goods from a pack on his back, which he carried from home to home. 

Having shown his brothers his worth as a merchant, Levi was asked to move out west to the thriving city of San Francisco. The California Gold Rush of 1849 had caused the area’s population to boom, opening the door for businesses to open up shop on the Pacific coast. His brothers saw the opportunity to build a new branch of their dry-goods shop and invited Levi to take over operations. 

California or Bust

In 1953, the doors of Levi Strauss & Co opened. With his wholesale businesses, Levi supplied local shops with fabric, clothes, perfume, and other dry-goods that he had imported from New York. Typically, importing was expensive and time-consuming, but with his connections across the country, Levi quickly saw success. 

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As his business grew and the city filled with families, he expanded his inventory to include home goods. This included everything from sewing kits to canvas tents, which he manufactured himself. Strauss rose to prominence in San Francisco and smaller, outlying communities. He helped create the first synagogue in the area and regularly donated money to support orphans. 

The Beginning of Blue Jeans

In 1872, a man named Jacob Davis wrote a letter to Strauss asking him to fund a new patent. Using canvas material that Davis bought in Strauss’ shop, he had created a pair of pants with rivets on the pockets and fly, where typical pants were most likely to tear. Together, the men perfected the design and filed the patent. It was officially approved on May 20, 1873. 

In the beginning, these new “waist overalls” were created and sewn in the homes of hired seamstresses across the city. They began dying the pants a deep blue to hide stains, which made them even more appealing for workers and gold panners. Eventually, canvas was swapped out for denim, as it was sturdier and less likely to tear. As their popularity continued to grow and demand increased, Strauss rented out a factory building and began manufacturing the pants at high volume. His famous 501s soon expanded to include work shirts and overalls.

Strauss’ Later Years

Though he continued to run his dry-goods store, much of Levi’s attention turned towards successfully manufacturing the highly popular blue jeans. Because Strauss had never married or had children, he began to train his nephews to take over the business, allowing him to focus on other pursuits, such as his roles as Treasurer of the San Francisco Board of Trade and director of the Liverpool, London, and Globe Insurance Company, San Francisco Gas and Electric Company, and the Nevada Bank. 

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He also continued his charitable work, establishing twenty-eight scholarships for the University of California and donating money to build a railroad system that ran from the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco. 

When Levi Strauss died on September 26, 1902, his estate was worth nearly $200 million (adjusted for inflation). He left his business to his nephews, with Jacob Stern taking over as acting president. 

Today, visitors to the Levi Strauss & Co headquarters can view historical exhibits that celebrate the life of one of America’s greatest immigrant entrepreneurs. 

In a time where political tensions are high and the immigration debate rages, it pays to look back at the value immigrants have brought to the United States. Levi Strauss created a clothing icon, a symbol of the hard work and tenacity of American laborers. Had he stayed in Germany, likely, the creation of the blue jean as we know it today would not have been possible. 

Today, you can find a pair of Levis in almost every household across the country. The company employs more than 12,500 people worldwide, including 5,700 in America. They hold their third-party suppliers to strict guidelines regarding working conditions, ethical environmental impact, and employment practices. They are committed to sustainability and have donated more than $300 million since 1954. 

The company is a testament to the creativity and drive that immigrants bring to our nation.