140 riveting years of Levi’s history
In 1873, Levi Strauss and his business partner Jacob Davis patented their copper-riveted waist overalls, as jeans were originally called. The 140th anniversary has prompted me to celebrate the jeans originators with some images taken from the 1992 book Cult: A visual history of jeanswear American originals by William Gilchrist and Roberto Manzotti. I wrote the supporting text in the book, as described here.
Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, moved from New York City to Sanfrancisco in 1853. He was 24. He began to produce for the Gold Rush miners in California what he called Waist High Overalls or Pantaloons. Levi Strauss & Co did not call its trousers “jeans” until the 1960s.
Originally the overalls were made from a hard-wearing fabric called duck cloth and from sail cloth. It started using what we’d now call denim in 1860. It bought the cloth from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co in Manchester, New Hampshire, which was reportedly the world’s largest producer of cotton fabric.
Jacob Davis, a tailor and leather worker on Carson City, Nevada, proposed a collaboration to Levi Strauss. Davis had devised a process to use metal rivets to reinforce the stress points of overalls to make the garments more durable. The patent for this was issued on May 20 1873. The year also saw the introduction of the Double Arcuate stitch, originally in orange thread, on the single back pocket of Levi Strauss’ pants. One unconfirmed theory is that the device was meant to represent a flying Rocky Mountain eagle.
Until 1896, the pants carried only leather labels, but later pressed card was also used. About 140 years ago, Levi’s started using the XX reference indicating that it was using 10oz cloth, which was regarded as Double Extra Heavy. The image of two horses failing to pull apart a pair of Levi’s pants dates back to a publicity stunt in 1886.
Although we regard modern jeans as a “5-pocket Western” style, the fifth pocket – a second one on the back – was not added until 1905. The fourth pocket – the watch pocket – appeared in 1890.
What we now recognise as Levi’s 501s started life in the late 19th century as its Number One Overalls, which had a martingale fastening strap on the back waist. By 1922 belt loops were added to the existing buttons for braces. From 1922 the 501XX style used only 9oz denim from Cone Mills, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. The company still supplies Levi’s with certain denims today.
The famous Red Tab appeared in 1936! Originally all the letters were capitals – Levi’s collectors seek out the Big E tab.
Just as Levi’s first trousers were called overalls, so its first tops were called blouses. This 506XX model was introduced in 1905; it was re-classified as Number One in 1917. The term jacket was not used by Levi’s until around 1938.
This more familiar Levi’s jacket, the 557XX, also known as the Trucker Jacket, was released in 1962 with the celebrated pointed pocket flaps. In the late 1960s the jacket was made longer and side pockets were added.
With a nod to my blog about denim shirts a few days ago, I will finish with Levi’s marvellous “Sawtooth” Western shirt. I always thought the name referred to the pointed pocket flaps, but Cult says it comes from the jagged stitching on the yokes and pockets. I won’t argue with Cult.
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