Levi Strauss was a German-Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who arrived in New York in search of the American Dream–and he found it! When Americans think of blue jeans, they think of Levis. Levi Strauss & Company has provided durable, attractive clothing for America’s cowboys, factory workers, and rebellious teens since the mid-1800s, and the story of Levi Strauss is a remarkable American success story, as well.
The Early Years of Levi Strauss
On February 26, 1829, Löeb “Levi” Strauss was born in Buttenheim, in the Franconian region of Bavaria, Germany, to Hirsch and Rebecca (Haass) Strauss, who already had three sons and three daughters. Löeb was nicknamed “Levi” by his family. Levi Strauss’s father died in 1845.
Levi Strauss Joins His Family in America
Prior to their father’s death, Strauss’s brothers left their homeland for the United States and started a dry goods business in New York City. In 1847, Strauss, his mother, and three sisters traveled to America to join his brothers. In 1853, Strauss earned his American citizenship. That same year, he also decided to follow the gold hunters headed for California, but Strauss was not seeking gold. His plan was to start a subsidiary of his brothers’ dry goods store, importing clothing, umbrellas, and other items to sell to small stores that were opening throughout California near mining towns.
Levi Strauss in California
Levi Strauss did very well for himself in California and soon sent for his sister, Fanny, and her family and welcomed his brother-in-law, David Stern, into his small company. The business thrived, and by the time Levi Strauss was in his mid-thirties, he was a popular business man in San Francisco. And yet, as he made the rounds in his wagon with his dry goods, he noticed one thing that most miners had in common, one thing they were missing: durable pants. The pants worn by miners and factory workers were made of cotton, and often falling apart.
Jacob Davis Joins Levi Strauss
One day, Strauss received a letter from a customer, Jacob W. Davis, an immigrant from Latvia who arrived in the United States in 1868. Davis was a tailor in Reno, Nevada who had a design for a good pair of pants. He was purchasing fabric from Strauss to make tents and wagon covers. He started using copper rivets to reinforce horse harnesses. Then he came up with the idea of using these same copper rivets to hold pants together in areas under the most stress, and to use tent fabric to make the pants. Davis, however, lacked the necessary money to purchase a patent for his product. Levi Strauss met with Davis and the men agreed to become partners, creating the first official pair of blue jeans in 1873. Within a matter of a few years, Levi Strauss & Company was making history clothing miners, factory workers and cowboys around the country with their durable blue jeans.
Levi Strauss Becomes a Beloved Citizen and Benefactor
By all accounts, Levi Strauss was a compassionate and generous man. He was a regular contributor to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society, and the Hebrew Board of Relief. He also funded scholarships for poor students at the University of California.
Death and Legacy of Levi Strauss
Levi Strauss never married. He died on September 26, 1902. When he died, he was worth nearly six million dollars. He left the bulk of his fortune to his family, his favorite charities, and to the Roman Catholic Protestant Orphan Asylums. He left his factory and Levi Strauss & Company to his nephews, the children of Fanny and David Stern. He is buried in Colma, California. In his obituary, the L.A. Times referred to Levi Strauss as “one of the last of the oldtime merchants of San Francisco and one of the best-known men from the most southerly limit of California to Puget Sound.” There is now a Levi Strauss Museum in Buttenheim, Germany.
The Story Continues as Disaster Strikes Levi Strauss & Company
In 1906, an earthquake struck San Francisco, California and the original factory on Battery Street and all historical records of the company were destroyed in the horrific fire storm that followed. Following in the tradition of their benevolent uncle, Strauss’s nephews rebuilt the company as quickly as possible and during the process they continued to pay their employee’s salaries and to assist other business owners in their efforts to rebuild. Levi Strauss & Company is one of the most successful businesses in America to this day.