Today in 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a United States patent for jeans with copper rivets. Since that day more than 135 years ago, blue jeans have gone from being sturdy pants made for the working man to a fashion statement worn casually all over the world. The progression of the denim trouser is a story of ingenuity and the ability of one small item to grow into a symbol of Western culture.
The word “jeans” comes to us from the French phrase meaning the ‘blue of Genoa’. The material from which jeans are made, denim, was developed independently in France and in India. Naval forces all over the world adopted the tough trousers, including the Genoese Navy in Italy as early as the 16th century. Sailors from the Dhunga area of India wore denim trousers as their work uniforms; those types of pants came to be known as dungarees. That term survives today in the navies of the United States and other nations.
Over the years, denim trousers traveled from ship to shore. A German-born immigrant named Levi Strauss made his way to San Francisco in 1853, eager to expand his dry goods business into the Gold Rush areas of California. He soon met Jacob Davis, a Latvian-born tailor who bought canvas-type materials, including denim, from Strauss for various applications. Soon, however, he was making pants out of the stuff to replace the cotton trousers that miners found nearly useless under heavy use. As tough as the canvas and denim were, they still ripped in particular places, like the pockets.
Davis had used rivets before on items like harnesses, but it wasn’t until 1871 that he first used them on his denim trousers. The story goes that he came up with the idea when a lady approached him to buy some denim to mend the rips her husband managed to make in his pants. Davis solved the woman’s problem by using rivets on the weak areas of the trousers. Thus, the trousers that would one day be called jeans were born.
Davis knew he had a virtual gold mine on his hands, but he worried about other people capitalizing on his innovation. Lacking the money at the time to file a patent on his invention, he approached Levi Strauss, the man who had supplied him with his raw materials for years. Strauss saw the brilliance in Davis’ design and agreed to enter into a partnership. On May 20, 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis were granted United States patent #139121 for using copper rivets to reinforce the pockets and other stress areas of denim work pants.
Levi Strauss soon left the dry goods business and began making denim jeans full time under the business name of Levi Strauss & Co. Jacob Davis became a partner with the company and worked as the company’s production manager until his death in 1908, although he sold his interest in the patent in 1907.
Levi Strauss died in 1902. Since he had no children, the business was left to his four nephews, who oversaw explosive growth in the company despite setbacks such as the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.
After the Second World War, blue jeans went from being work clothes to being casual clothes worn by young men and women. They became the symbol of the American counter-culture during the 1960’s and left such a strong impression that some people who lived through that era will not wear jeans to this day. By the 1970’s, blue jeans became acceptable casual wear for people of all ages, hippies or no. Today, the average North American owns seven pairs of jeans, although whether all those pairs fit or can be worn in public is a matter of some debate.
Some sociologists studying the fall of the Soviet Union attribute a desire for Western goods and freedoms to the appearance of blue jeans on the streets of Moscow. The jeans were very expensive and only available on the black market, but to own a pair was to have status in what was supposed to be a classless society. This glimpse at Western culture was, perhaps, one of the first cracks in the dam of Communism in Eastern Europe.