Levi Strauss (1829 – 1902)

A Man Whose Name Has Become Iconic Around the World

Levi Strauss was born as Loeb Strauss in Buttenheim, Germany in 1829.  In 1847 after the death of his father, he, his two sisters and his mother immigrated to the United States and landed in New York City.  There he joined his two brothers in their wholesale dry goods business, called “J. Strauss Brother & Co.”

After learning the ropes and sensing an opportunity in California with the Gold Rush of 1849, Loeb – by now legally Levi, headed to California in February 1853, a month after becoming an American citizen.

His destination was San Francisco, where he established Levi Strauss & Co.  He was a wholesaler who brought in dry goods of all sorts from his brothers in the east and sold them to the small shops who supplied the tens of thousands of gold prospectors who were seeking their fortunes in the mines and streams across America’s then newest state.  He would sell everything from clothing to umbrellas to fabric. One fabric in particular was duck cloth, or cotton denim, a heavy duty material that was popular with farmers and miners.  It was that fabric that would eventually change the world of clothing, although it would not happen for another twenty years! 

Strauss became a very successful wholesaler, with his customers trying to keep up with the burgeoning numbers of people moving to California, not only for gold, but for the myriad opportunities from farming to construction to railroads to the lumber industry. But 19 years after leaving for California, his life would change forever. 

In 1872 one of his regular customers, Jacob Davis, a tailor from a Reno, Nevada contacted him with a proposition.  He had been using metal rivets at the on the corners of the pants he had been making for his miner clients. His clients loved them because in the rough and tumble world of 19th century California they were durable.  He wanted to patent the idea, but he didn’t have enough money to pay for the patent application and he wanted to know if Strauss would like to become his business partner and share the cost ($68).  Always a man with an eye for an opportunity, Strauss jumped at the chance and they applied for the patent. 

On May 20, 1873 US Patent No. 139,121 for “Improvements in fastening pocket openings” was issued to Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss & Co.  That day is considered the “birthday” of blue jeans, however at the time they were called “waist overalls”. Davis had already been doing a brisk business, but with their patent issued and their idea protected, Strauss put the business into overdrive, making Davis the head of manufacturing. For the first decade or so jeans were sewn by seamstresses in their homes until in the early 1880’s when the pair set up their first manufacturing facility, located near Market Street in San Francisco.  The facility not only produced the company’s signature 501 blue jeans – then known as “XX”, but it also manufactured overalls, shirts and other clothing as well. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Strauss would play an important role in his company for most of the rest of his life, although he would bring in numerous nephews to help him as the company grew. He crafted a culture of community within his company, insisting that employees call him Levi rather than Mr. Strauss. That culture survived after Strauss died in 1902, as demonstrated by the fact that, despite suffering great damage to their facilities in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires the company continued to pay employee salaries and extended credit to other, less fortunate merchants until they could get back on their feet.

When he died in 1902 Levi Strauss had an estate of $30 million, or approximately $900 million today.  Over his lifetime Strauss donated vast sums to different charities and community organizations from Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco’s first Jewish synagogue to orphan programs, to hospitals to the University of California, Berkeley.

Levi Strauss was a businessman, a family man and a man of the community.  Unlike some, he very much kept the three intertwined in his life.  Perhaps that’s why today the company he started still sells millions of pairs of basically the same iconic product he first manufactured over 150 years ago.

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