The history behind your favourite jeans
by Sherry Barber
They weren’t always blue and they weren’t always called jeans or Levis. In 1871 they were called waist coveralls, made for men of the American Gold Rush who needed sturdy work pants with pockets that wouldn’t rip as they filled with ore samples.
Who invented blue jeans? Credit Levi Strauss with the fabric and the factory. Credit Jacob Davis with the rivets.
Jacob Davis? The name may not be familiar, but he was critical to the success of riveted jeans, almost as an afterthought. Davis was a restless young Latvian emigrant who, unlike steadfast Levi Strauss, jumped around the U.S. map trying to make a living as a tailor, or sometimes a seller of cigars. Davis once invested everything he had in a brewery and lost it all.
Meanwhile, unmarried Levi Strauss, a bedrock solid businessman and philanthropist, settled in San Francisco with his wholesale dry goods business.
Jacob Davis, by the early 1870s, was in Reno, NV, with a wife and six children. He resumed his tailoring business, adding wagon covers, tents and horse blankets to his shop. He ordered supplies from Levi Strauss in California, including durable fabric to make those waist coveralls.
Successful Levi Strauss had already learned that white duck cloth, though hard-wearing, caused chafing when sewn to make work pants. He started ordering bolts of a hardy twilled cotton from the town of Nimes in France, called serge de Nimes. A careful look at the name explains why people started referring to it as denim. Pants made of this woven brown or indigo blue material quickly became popular.
In 1871 a Reno woman marched into Jacob Davis’ tailoring shop and demanded cheap pants for her very large husband. “He wears them out too quick,” she bellowed. “Make the pants as strong as possible – especially the pockets.” She paid $3 in advance, more than double the rate for typical work pants, and Davis set to stitching. After finishing the pants, Davis eyed the copper rivets he used for attaching leather straps to horse blankets and decided to use them to reinforce stress points on the pants.
The concept proved so successful that, even at $3 each, 200 pair sold out before competitors began imitating the riveted denims. “I found the demand so large that I cannot make them fast enough,” Davis wrote to Strauss in 1872. He wrote “My nabors [sic] are getting yealouse of these success,” (the same way he spoke) “and unless I secure it by Patent Papers it will soon become to be a general thing everybody will make them up and thare will be no money in it.”
In the same letter he proposed that Levi Strauss front the $68 fee for a patent “in my name as I am the Inventor of it,” and offered half the rights to Strauss. Strauss saw value in partnering with Davis and on May 20, 1873 patent #139,121 was awarded to Jacob Davis, with one half assigned to Levi Strauss & Co.
Levi then hired Jacob to oversee production of the riveted pants at the San Francisco plant, thus ending Davis’ wandering ways and launching the most enduring apparel item in clothing history.
Now, that’s riveting.
Sherry Barber is a writer who has published regionally, nationally and internationally. She lives in California.