Levi Strauss started an enduring fashion empire, which he launched by making one of the world’s most durable and popular clothing items–the blue jeans.
An early American clothing success story, Levi Strauss was born in Germany in 1829, and came to America in 1847 to work for his brothers' dry goods business. In 1853, Strauss went out West where he soon started his own dry goods and clothing company. His company began making heavy-duty work pants, now known as jeans, in 1870s, and it continues to operate to this day.
Originally named Loeb, Levi Strauss was born into a large family on February 26, 1829, in Buttenheim, Bavaria, Germany. His father Hirsh and his mother Rebecca Haas Strauss had two children together, and Hirsh had five children from his first marriage to Mathilde Baumann Strauss who had died in 1822. Living in Bavaria, the Strausses experienced religious discrimination because they were Jewish. There were restrictions on where they could live and special taxes placed on them because of their faith.
When he was around the age of sixteen, Strauss lost his father to tuberculosis. He, his mother, and two sisters made their way to the United States of America two years later. Upon their arrival, the family reunited Jonas and Louis, Strauss's two older brothers, in New York City. Jonas and Louis had established a dry goods business there and Levi went to work for them.
Success in the West
The California Gold Rush of 1849 led many to travel out west to seek their fortune. Strauss was no exception. In early 1853, he headed out to San Francisco to sell goods to the thriving mining trade. Strauss ran his own wholesale dry goods company as well as acted as his brothers' West Coast agent. Using a series of different locations in the city over the years, he sold clothing, fabric, and other items to small shops in the region.
As his business thrived, Strauss supported numerous religious and social causes. He helped establish the first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, in the city. Strauss also gave money to several charities, including special funds for orphans.
Birth of Blue Jeans
A customer, Jacob Davis, wrote to Strauss in 1872, asking for his help. Davis, a tailor in Nevada, had bought cloth from Strauss for his own business and developed a special way to make more durable pants. Davis used metal rivets on the pockets and on the front fly seam to help the pants resist wear and tear. Unable to cover the cost himself, Davis asked Strauss to pay the fee so that he could secure a patent for his unique design.
The following year, the patent was granted to Strauss and Davis. Strauss believed that there would be a great demand for these "waist overalls" as he called them, but they are best known today as blue jeans. At first they were made with a heavy canvas and then the company switched to a denim fabric, which was dyed to blue to reportedly hide stains.
According to some reports, Strauss first had the pants made by seamstresses in their homes. He later started his own factory to make the pants in the city. In any case, his tough-and-rugged jeans helped make Strauss a millionaire. He expanded his business interests over the years, buying the Mission and Pacific Woolen Mills in 1875.
While he remained active in the company, Strauss began to give more responsibilities to his nephews who worked for him. He continued to be generous to those in need, providing the funds for 28 scholarships at the University of California in 1897.
Strauss died at the age of 73 on September 26, 1902, at his home in San Francisco. After his death, his nephew Jacob Stern took over as company president. The legendary jeans he helped create, known as Levi's or Levis, continued to grow in popularity and have remained a fashion staple over the decades.