The Way It Was: Levi Strauss

By January 20, 2008The Way It Was

The%20Way%20It%20Was.jpgLet’s go back in time to California 150 years ago, the gold rush. Desperate men are hacking away at the earth. It’s hard work, sunup to sundown, with shovels and picks. Wool and cotton clothing don’t hold up very well. Everyone is walking around in rags.

Back in New York Levi Strauss loads up stuff he figures miners need, and sets out for San Francisco. In 1853, the city was a riot. There were 399 saloons, 28 breweries, hundreds of brothels and 1,200 reported murders in a population of 70,000, and another 2,400 newcomers disappeared, never to be seen again.

A tough town demands tough pants. Levi was selling rough canvas for tents and wagons. A miner said what he really needed was pants that would last. Strauss obligingly made some canvas into overalls.

Miners liked the new pants, but they chafed. So Strauss substituted another material that became known as denim.

A tailor from Nevada came up with the idea of rivets at key points to keep the pants intact. Voila, blue jeans were born.

Levi achieved immortality with blue jeans, though jeans is a word he never used. Long after his death, the company began using the term. Today blue jeans are everywhere.

Oddly, this product that was created in response to necessity didn’t fully come into its own until it became a fashion statement. It is the consumers’ preferences that drives the market, not their needs.

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