When the cry was heard, "There's gold in them thar hills," in 1849, thousands of people throughout the country left what they were doing to rush to California to dig for their fortune. Levi Strauss also went to California, but not with a shovel. Instead, he went there with bundles of cloth to sell to tailors.
He didn't arrive in California in 1850 because the ship from New York had to travel around Cape Horn to reach San Francisco. While traveling on the ship, he sold practically all of his bundles of cloth to his shipmates. When he landed, he had only a roll of canvas cloth left, which he hoped to sell to a tentmaker.
When Strauss landed, a miner approached him and asked if he had any pants to sell. Levi asked him, "Why pants?" It seems that the miners in digging for gold found that the rough terrain quickly wore out their pants, which created a shortage in stores. Being an experienced merchant and not a miner, a thought flashed in Levi's mind: He would take the tough canvas cloth and make this man a pair of pants. He went immediately to a tailor, who made the pants for the man to wear.
It didn't take long before Levi was overrun with orders for the new trousers. It seems that the miner had been bragging to his friends about the durability and virtues of Levi's canvas pants.
The above story is one of many versions as to why and how Levi's were first made. The true history was burned up when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the records and history of the Levi Strauss Company.
Meanwhile, Levi wrote to his brothers in New York asking them to ship him more canvas cloth. The demand for canvas-cloth pants was growing daily. Everybody wanted Levi's. Strauss gradually started making pants from a durable material called "denim," which consisted of cotton threads woven in a twill pattern. Levi was the first to start coloring them dark blue, using an indigo dye.
One of the problems that many miners had was that their pocket seams burst because they would stuff ore in them. Jacob Davis, a tailor, was buying material from Levi and making pants for the miners. To try to solve the problems of the pockets, Davis riveted them to the denim material. Davis patented the copper riveting process in 1870.
Davis had turned out many pairs of pants with riveted pockets before Levi and he formed a partnership in 1873. Their business grew as word spread throughout the country about the durability of their pants. Cowboys used them because they endured the roughness of the saddle and long rides on horseback. Factory workers used them to protect themselves from the grit and grime. Soon the fashion world made them the "in" thing to wear.
Levi Strauss was born in Bavaria in 1829. His father, Hirsch Levi, was a drygoods salesman who had four children by his first wife and two, Fanny and Levi, by his second wife, Rebecca Haas. After his father died in 1845, they immigrated to the United States in 1847.
Strauss never married; he died on September 26, 1902, in San Francisco, leaving millions of dollars to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. The University of California still has the trust fund that he donated, which awards 28 scholarships annually.
Levi Strauss was a philanthropist who will always be remembered for his charity, as well as for his fashion-world "jeans."
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 12 May 2011