Thursday, January 28, 2016

The History of Blue Jeans

 "My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. . . Then I saw another."-James Marshall, California, January 24, 1848.

Less than 30 years later the iconic symbol of ruggedness and individuality of blue jeans began in the American West. Their timelessness has now endured over 140 years. My fascination with the history began, quite interestingly, with my recent adventure to sew my own pair of blue jeans. Steeped in history and mystery, blue jeans tell a fascinating story.

In 1849 nearly 100,000 people from around the world arrived in California to seek their fortunes. There is a Pennsylvania mountain legend in my family that my great grandfather walked to California barefoot to claim $2500 which his father, a 49er, had left him. (My family never saw that money.)

Over 50,000 people arrived in San Francisco that year.  In 1853, a certain Levi Strauss opened a wholesale dry goods store where he sold various items, including tough and durable fabrics which was highly needed in the rugged West.

In 1868 a certain Jacob Davis arrived in Reno, Nevada, which had also succumbed to mining fever when silver was discovered in 1859. A year later Davis opened a tailoring business, primarily sewing heavily needed wagon covers and tents for the burgeoning population. His primary fabrics of choice was cotton duck, which he ordered from Levi Strauss and Company in San Francisco.

One day a customer walked into Davis' shop, requesting a pair of pants to be made for her husband, as strong as possible, to be made of white cotton duck.  I've learned some 18th century tailoring and have handsewn several pairs  of breeches for my son. I've learned to apply the age old trade of reinforcing spots that endure the most wear and tear with extra stitching. Davis, genius tailor that he was, knew that even this would not be enough for a miner's exceedingly rugged job. He decided to use rivets, that he usually used in sewing horse blankets, for the extra durability.  Knowing that miners heavily used their pockets to store rocks and tools, he decided to reinforce the pockets and the bottom of the fly with rivets.

Nothing sells as well as a walking advertisement. One happy customer with riveted cotton duck pants convinced other miners to request the same. Eighteen months later, Davis had sold 200 pairs. Soon he started making denim pants with rivets as well. Of course the denim came from the Levi Strauss and Company of San Francisco. Not only did other miners catch on to the success of rivets, other tailors caught on and started duplicating Davis' work.

Davis sent Strauss 2 samples of riveted waisted overalls (as the pants were then called), one made of the white cotton duck and the other made of the blue denim. With the samples Davis enclosed a letter explaining the story behind them and the competition now ensuing in the tailoring trade in Reno. Because Davis was short on money for a patent, he invited Strauss to join him in a business if he would provide the cash. Even though Davis had written for other patents, he asked Strauss to join him in the business, and to draft and submit the patent with Davis being the inventor. In return Strauss would get half the business. Strauss agreed. Meanwhile Strauss invited Davis to join him in San Francisco to help oversee production. Davis arrived with his family in April of 1873.  On May 20, 1873, the patent was issued and a partnership was born.

Davis sold his part of the patent to Strauss around 1907, although he continued to oversee production until his death in 1908. Today the Davis descendants run Ben Davis, another rugged clothing line.

Meanwhile there are many mysteries to these riveted pants that would one day be called "blue jeans." An earthquake in 1908 destroyed most of San Francisco, including the Levi Strauss Company's building. Original source documents are forever gone, so now it is the work of curators to piece together history. There are some great videos on that at the Levi Strauss website.

However there are also many details that we do know, so I shall share some details of the history of the garment we now call "blue jeans." All of the following information is an abbreviated punch list from the far more fully detailed Levi 501 Jeans history page at the Levi Strauss website. Knowing some of these details can help one identify old Levi's as to age and value. There is an example of this on one of the videos. A lady found a vintage Levi for 25 cents at a yard sale that is worth $1000's. What fun if we could simply hold a pair of history in our hands. (The cash would be fun too.)   

  • one back pocket with Arcuate stitching
  • one watch pocket
  • a cinch
  • suspender buttons
  • rivets to reinforce each pocket as well as the base of the fly
  • button fly

Most pants of the era had a cinch, suspender buttons and button flies, so why change that? The original Levi jeans (which were not yet called jeans in 1873) employed a common pattern of pants and common durable fabrics (cotton duck or denim).  The newness in these Levi pants were in the rivets. It was all about the rivets. That was the purpose of the patent.

  • The Two Horse brand leather patch, which represents the durability of the pants, is first used, in preparation for the patent going to public domain. 
  •   Lots numbers are assigned. We are not sure why. Perhaps this information, too, was lost in the earthquake. However this is where the lot number 501 originates, and is now trademarked.

  • There are now two back pockets
  • The pants now have a felled inseam. Previously a mock fell was used. 
  • There are now belt loops 
  • The iconic red tab identifying the pants as Levi's are placed on the back pocket. 
  • Suspender buttons are no longer sewn on, however they are provided for customers who wish to use them.
1941-1945 WWII rationing needs minimizes iconic elements to necessary elements.
  • Cinch discontinued
  • Rivets at the base of the fly and for the watch pocket are discontinued
  • Arcuate stitching is discontinued to save on thread-the design is painted on instead. 
  • Arcuate stitching is now patented for Levi's.
  • Rivets return to the watch pocket
  • Arcuate stitched with double needle which obtains the iconic diamond shape.
  • Zipper now used for the fly
  • Teenagers call these riveted pants..."jeans." The name stuck.
  • Rivets on the back pockets no longer used 
  • The "Big E v little e" now begins, differentiating vintage jeans from modern 

First the miners, then the cowboys fell in love with the riveted pants. During WWII, Americans packed a favorite pair or two to take with them "over there." They quickly caught on in Europe, and then Japan. After the war, rugged durable Levi's for the laborer became more of a fashion statement and moved east. Easterners preferred zippered flies. Westerners preferred button flies.  By the 1950's teens enjoyed their blue jeans, although parents met their desires with a bit of resistance.  Then by the 1980's designer jeans became popular.

This is only a smattering of information I found. Levi Strauss provides numerous detailed articles and videos on the history of the blue jean.  For those who are interested in the origin of the fibers of denim v jean (yes that is a type of fiber that somehow became a name of pants that had no jean fibers in it) is all detailed at the previous link, along with other mysteries, and known facts, for blue jeans...and more specifically, Levi's!

Below all of the links are listed in order of use. In case the links ever break, the information can be more easily found with the list below.  


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