The birth of blue jeans

The ‘riveting’ story of how two visionary immigrants created an American classic

Denim jeans are a fashion essential around the world, but their origins are much more humble. During the late 1800s, America was in the full throes of the Gold Rush, and Jacob Davis, a Latvian immigrant, was working as a tailor in Nevada. Jacob sold clothing to local miners and workmen, who required strong and hard-wearing material for their work. It was here that Jacob struck gold. 

By fixing small copper rivets to the most strained areas of the garment, such as the pockets, he created a much more durable design. This new, robust clothing caught public attention and Jacob’s ‘waist overalls’, as they were known, became so popular that he sought a patent to protect his idea. But a patent required money, so he asked his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, for help.

Bavarian-born Strauss had also travelled to the States to seek his fortune and saw potential in Jacob’s product. The pair were granted a patent in 1873 and before long the modern denim jean was being worn in factories, farms and mines across the country. Indigo was chosen to dye the jeans because it was dark enough to hide stains, it didn’t penetrate the woven fabric and, crucially, it was cheap.

When the patent expired in 1908 dozens of imitations flooded the market and in the decades to come were worn by men and women of all classes. Teenagers began calling them ‘jeans’ instead of ‘overalls’ and manufacturers officially adopted the term in the 1960s. Today their popularity is as durable as the original riveted design.

5 jean-ius facts

  1. Denim jeans is a misnomer: In the late 1700s, two cotton fabrics were produced: denim and jean. Denim, originally made in de Nîmes, France, was more durable and thicker than jean, used to make workers’ trousers in Genoa, Italy.
  2. They were almost banned: Jeans gained a ‘bad boy’ image after featuring in movies like Rebel Without A Cause. Schools began banning them, so Levi’s ran a campaign starring a clean-cut, denim-clad kid with the slogan ‘Right for school’.

  3. Levi wasn’t his real name: He was born Loeb Strauss, but like his future business partner, Jacob Davis, he changed his name after immigrating to the US. Eventually, Levi set up a wholesale dry goods business in San Francisco.

  4. Duck or denim?: When Levi and Jacob began mass-producing their waist overalls, they manufactured two kinds. One was from blue denim and the other from brown cotton duck — a tough canvas material that was used to cover wagons.

  5. Built to last: In the Levi Strauss & Co archives lies two pairs of jeans dating from the late 1870s or early 1880s, which are thought to be the oldest in existence. Only two people know the combination to the fireproof safe that protects them.

Denim by the decades

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 105, written by Jodie Tyley 

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