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Levi Strauss: The Jewish Immigrant Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 18, 2023 3:00 am

Levi Strauss: The Jewish Immigrant Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 18, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, this is the story of how Levi Strauss got his American Dream stitched into a pair of blue jeans—the fabric of freedom. Here to tell this story is Lynn Downey. Lynn was the first in-house historian for Levi Strauss & Co. and is the author of the wonderfully readable biography, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World.

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It's Dramos. You may know me from the recap on LATV. Now I've got my own podcast, Life as a Gringo, coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday. We'll be talking real and unapologetic about all things life, Latin culture and everything in between from someone who's never quite fit in.

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And this next one, my goodness, it's a great one. Levi's are an American phenomenon symbolizing the vitality of the West to people all over the world. But just as phenomenal is the story of their creator, the young German immigrant, Levi Strauss.

This is the story of how one man got his American dream stitched into a pair of blue jeans, the fabric of freedom. Here to tell this story is Lynn Downey. Lynn was the first in-house historian for Levi Strauss and Company. She's the author of the wonderfully readable biography, Levi Strauss, The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World.

Here's Lynn. I was hired as the very first historian archivist for Levi Strauss and Co. in 1989. And when I walked in the door, I was not too surprised that there weren't any historical records because of this. This is a picture of the company headquarters, April 20th, 1906, after the building has survived the massive earthquake, but not the fire.

It's not unusual. You go to work for a company in San Francisco that was founded before the earthquake. You're not going to have much. So let's start with his beginning. He was born Loeb Strauss, L-O-Umlaut B. Strauss, February 26th, 1829, in the Bavarian town of Buttenheim. His father, Hirsch, was a peddler. His grandparents, grandfathers were cattle traders.

Peddling, of course, was a traditional Jewish occupation. Levi's mother was actually Hirsch Strauss's second wife. He had five older siblings, half siblings.

And then he and his sister Fanny were the son and daughter of Hirsch's second wife. So he grew up going to the tiny little synagogue and tiny little Buttenheim and going to school. But he and the entire family and every Jewish citizen of Buttenheim was living under something called the Juden Edict. It was a law that had been passed in 1813 that was intended to make proper citizens out of Bavarian Jews but really just took away so many rights. And one of the things that was done to do this was every village after the Juden Edict went into effect had to have a list called a matricel, which was the list of every citizen in every town.

And it had very specific rules. Only those who were listed on the matricel could marry or change their residence within the boundaries of the kingdom. In addition, the right to marry was limited to the eldest son in the family. A younger son could marry only if a childless couple gave up a spot on the matricel for him, if he married a widow, who also was on the list, or if he left his village and married in another, or if a place on the list opened up.

Basically, it was about the list. And if you were a younger son, you couldn't marry. There were a lot of unsanctioned unions and illegitimate births in a lot of these very, very small towns in Bavaria. The other bigger problem that the Juden Edict had was it did not allow Jews to carry on their traditional occupations. Pedaling cattle trading, two of the biggest occupations for the region. Unless you were sort of grandfathered in and you were too old and you already had that occupation, you had to take up farming or small crafts. You had to be a shoemaker or soap maker or whatever. So the oldest Strauss boy was Jacob.

He could marry, he could do whatever he wanted, but he still couldn't be a peddler like his dad. Not to mention the four, the three other boys in the house, they had no opportunities whatsoever. So in 1837, 18 young people in Buttenheim just got up and left. And two of them were the two oldest Strauss children. Jacob, who went to London, and Rosela, the oldest sister, went to New York. Three years later, the two other boys went to America. Jonathan, who became Jonas, and Lippmann, who became Louis. They left in 1840 and 1841, went to New York, and soon became very prosperous and were sending letters back home about how good things were in New York.

Then, in 1846, Herr Strauss dies of tuberculosis. And his wife, Rebecca, has a big decision to make. She has her own two children and the younger, her youngest stepdaughter. And so she makes the important and necessary decision to go to America. Now, if you wanted to leave Bavaria and go to America, you can just get up and leave. You had to apply to the Bavarian government and tell them why you wanted to leave. And you had to make sure you had to tell them why without insulting the Bavarian government at the same time. And thanks to the record keeping in the State Archives in Bamberg, we actually have the statement that Levi Strauss himself wrote to explain the reasons why he was leaving along with his mother.

It's really very poignant. The favorable news that I have received from my stepbrothers in America has convinced me to follow them, even though I do not have at this time a specific occupation. But my brothers will take care of that. No members of my family will stay behind. I will share the fate that has been assigned to me with them in foreign lands.

I thus join my mother in her plea. So it was, you know, I don't have a career here. Just like my brothers, you know, there's no career here, but I'm going to go to America and I'll have something to do. And this was very important because if you left Bavaria, you had to leave money behind so that if you struck out in America or London and came back home, you were not a burden on the state. So sometime between spring and autumn 1848, Rebecca Strauss and her three children got on a ship in Bremen and went off for New York. And you can read in the book about the ghastly steerage passage that you had to take to get to New York. And then they were very happy to finally land in New York City. And they moved into an area called Kleindeutschland, which is today basically the Lower East Side of New York.

But it was so many, both Christian and Jewish people from Germany, it was called Kleindeutschland, Little Germany. So they move in with Lewis and Jonah Strauss, who were urban peddlers. They had store accounts and they would get stuff wholesale and they would have their own store accounts and they'd walk around New York and they were basically urban peddlers. Their business was called Jay Strauss and Brother. Jay for Jonas, the oldest brother. He got to name the business after him. So Levi jumps in and he starts learning the business and he's learning English. And then the census taker comes around in 1850, takes the names of everybody in the Strauss household. And then there's someone named Levi because he changed his name for a number of reasons. The most important of which was nobody in America can pronounce lube. The other reason is Levi is a name from the Bible. It's very common. It's everybody knows it, Christian and Jews.

So it seemed like the appropriate name for him to take for his basically his business name, although it's very likely, of course, they called him lube at home. And you're listening to Lynn Downey telling the story, the great immigrant story of Levi Strauss. More of this remarkable American story continues here on our American stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Once again 855-933-5252. Should we continue here with our American stories and having learned why the Strauss family left Bavaria and my goodness, why would you stay with these kinds of laws and rules? Let's continue with Lynn Downey, this remarkable storyteller and the story of Levi Strauss. Then the gold rush happens and all these reports are coming back. All the Jewish, so many Jewish merchants are coming out to San Francisco and Auburn and all of the little gold rush towns and they're setting up retail stores and they're writing their families back home saying come out to California, the opportunities here are amazing. And if you wanted to come to California and go into business, you had two opportunities. You could be the wholesaler, you could stay in San Francisco, bring in the goods from New York and have your retail accounts up in the gold rush country.

Or you could have your small retail stores up there. It was this amazing sort of umbilical cord between New York, San Francisco and the gold country. So sometime in 1852, the Strauss family decides to send Levi to California to basically open up the west coast branch of J. Strauss brother and co. But he had something very important to do before he could leave. And on January 31, 1853, he became an American citizen. He had registered for naturalization almost the minute he got off the boat in 1848 and became a citizen. And five days later, he was on a steamer for the Isthmus of Panama. Now there were many ways to get to San Francisco. The fastest was to cross the Isthmus of Panama.

It was no less dangerous, but it was fast. So what you did was you took a steamer from New York to the Caribbean side of the Isthmus. And then in 1853, you could only take a railroad halfway across because it wasn't finished. Then you had to take a boat on the Chagres River and then depending on what time of year you were there, for him it was February, you stopped at Gorgona.

And then you rented a mule from Wells Fargo. Took the mule all the way down to Panama City on the Pacific side, got another Pacific coast, Pacific male steamship company up to San Francisco, which is what Levi did. So he crossed the Isthmus. He turned 24 years old, 24, on the trip up. I think he had just passed Acapulco on his way to San Francisco. And he landed here on March 14, 1853. So he's a very serious young man. And again, records are scarce, but I am almost positive that he arrived in California with letters of introduction from merchants in New York that he could take up to the Gold Rush Country to a store and say, the letter would say, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Levi Strauss. He's new in business.

Please give him your custom. He'd probably also arrange to have a warehouse near the waterfront where he could store the dry goods that his brothers had already put on a clipper ship that was going around the horn. And it's very likely he slept in that warehouse. I found a lot of letters and diaries and newspaper accounts of young merchants sleeping in their warehouses on a mattress and blanket where the fleas don't let me sleep.

We all know how flea-ridden San Francisco was. So one of the very first customers that we know of that Levi found was the store Hardy and Kennedy in Forest Hill, which is near Auburn. And this is the sort of collection of dry goods that his brothers would send him. Pants, shirts, boots, children's clothing, lace montillas for ladies. Dry goods was basically anything that wasn't hardware or food.

It was sort of the soft goods of everyday living. And this is what he was bringing in and he cultivated all these retail clients and he started this sort of web beginning in California, which very kept on going. When the Civil War came to California, Levi was, by the way, a Abraham Lincoln Republican. He voted for Lincoln in 1860 and 1864. He gave a lot of, he and the company gave a lot of money to the Sanitary Commission, which were those organizations that helped to create better conditions in hospitals and battlefield medical units to keep soldiers healthy during the during the Civil War. He joined something called the Committee of Thirty-Four, which kept their eyes open, looking for any treasonable combinations or conspiracies against the Union and the public peace. And there was a reason for that because there were a lot of Southern sympathizers in California and San Francisco.

It was a very real threat. Levi Strauss and Co., as well as many others, prospered during the Civil War because Eastern American ports were blockaded, so California wheat and wool and dry goods were able to get to Great Britain and make a lot of money during the Civil War. So he did prosper, he did do well, and in the mid to late 1850s, his sister Fanny and her husband David Stern and their children moved from New York out to San Francisco to live with Levi.

So he was here alone for the first three years that he lived here. It was on a battery between Pine and California, I believe. It was a beautiful, beautiful building. And they had started off at just 1416 Battery Street, and by the time of the earthquake it was 10 to 24 Battery Street.

They had basically the entire block. So the company had been just Levi Strauss, but by the time of, by about 1863, it was Levi Strauss and Co. The family was here, his sister Mary had passed away, and her husband was now out here as well with his children. So it was really becoming a family business. Now it was easy to make money in San Francisco, but it was also easy to lose it. What Levi regularly did was put gold called treasure, my favorite historical word, treasure, onto Pacific Mail steam ships that went down to the, to the Isthmus, were carted across the Isthmus, put on another steamer to go up to New York, and that gold, he sent that gold to his brothers to go into the bank to buy more dry goods. Well he had, the company had $76,000 in gold on the Central America, which is this boat, which went down in a hurricane off of South Carolina in September of 1857. That's about $2 million of value today. Now some people found that boat in the 1980s, but it's very likely the company did get an insurance payment.

They were very good about making sure that those, a lot of those shipments were insured. Levi had a pretty good sales force set up by the 1870s, and what's really interesting is that Levi had dry goods customers in Mexico, Canada, and Hawaii in the late 1860s and early 1870s. He really early understood the value of the Pacific Rim, which I find very fascinating. So he thinks, I'm going to, you know, I'm going to be a wholesaler for the rest of my life.

I'm prosperous, you know, my family is growing, my sister and her husband are having more kids, the business is doing great, I'm a happy capitalist. And that's what he thought he'd do for the rest of his life. Until 1872, when he got a letter from Jacob Davis, who was born Jakob Jufis in Riga, which is now Latvia, which at the time was Russia, one of those four places that gets bopped all over the map throughout history, but it was Russia at the time. He came to the United States in 1854, worked in the east, he was trained as a tailor, as a teenager back in Latvia, Russia. He came to California in late 1854, decided to try the whole gold mining thing and it didn't really work.

So he had changed his name to Davis by this time. So he was kind of went all over the place and he was, let's see, by the mid 1860s, he was up in Canada, he got married, started to have a family, ran a brewery, but every time he sort of didn't make it very well, he would go back to tailoring. In 1867, he was in Virginia City, which is, you know, one of the hubs of the Comstock, you know, mining regions. And he described it as a populated of 15,000 people, of which 5,000 were miners, about 5,000 of bummers, gamblers, and prostitutes, and about 5,000 of businessmen, speculators, and capitalists. Then in 1868, he moved to Reno, literally days after Reno had been officially established.

Was clustered, built up and clustered around the Central Pacific Railroad. Local businesses supported mining and agriculture and he set up there as a tailor and he, by this time, was making tent covers, horse blankets, and wagon covers. So in December 1870, January 1871, a woman walks into his tailoring shop and says, my husband needs a new pair of pants, but they've all fallen apart. He literally can't even go out in public, so I'm here to ask you to make a pair of pants for my husband. So he sends the wife back to her husband with a string and says, please measure his waist. So she comes back and she says, would you please do something to make these pants not fall apart?

My husband just goes through these pants like he just can't believe. So he was working with a fabric called duck. It's a kind of a lit in canvas.

It comes with the Dutch for canvas and it's pretty sturdy stuff, kind of an off-white. And then he had an over on a table, he had some horse blankets and he used to reinforce the seams and the stress points of horse blankets with rivets. And he looks over at this table and he thinks, huh, I wonder if I could put some rivets in these pants if they would hold together better.

So he did. You're hearing how innovation occurs and by whom in this great country and from the oddest circumstances and often just trying to solve a problem or a great business franchise is born. My goodness, what a story we're hearing. The story of Levi Strauss is being told by Lynn Downey. And by the way, the book that she wrote, a beautiful and readable biography is called Levi Strauss, the man who gave blue jeans to the world. More of this remarkable story is American story.

Levi Strauss's story here on our American stories. The NFL playoff action continues. We're one step closer to Superbowl 57 and for the NFL divisional round, check out DraftKings Sportsbook and official sports betting partner of the NFL. New customers can bet just $5 and get $200 in free bets instantly. Download the DraftKings Sportsbook app and use code timer. New customers can bet $5 on the NFL divisional round and get $200 in free bets instantly. That's promo code timer only at DraftKings Sportsbook.

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Once again, that's 855-933-5252. And we continue here with our American stories and the story of Levi Strauss. Let's return to our storyteller, Lynn Downey. He put rivets in the pocket corners, the base of the button fly, held on the little strap in the back that they had before belt loops, gives them to the woman. He sees the guy walking around town wearing his pants and the guy was really, really happy. And then people start hearing about these pants of Jacob Davis's and they're coming into his shop and asking to buy some more. So he realizes he's got a big sort of money-making idea in his hands. And he was a frustrated inventor, actually a partly successful inventor.

He actually had a patent for a type of closed press already. And he really, he always thought big and he wanted to mass manufacture and mass market these pants. So a lot of the fabric he had in his tailoring shop, he got from Levi Strauss and Co. So he knew the name Levi Strauss. He knew the reputation of Levi Strauss.

So what does he do? He has this money-making idea. He sends examples of the pants down to Levi, Wells Fargo Express, with a letter that says, here is a big money-making idea.

Let's be partners and do this together. Well, you know, that shows a lot of trust, you have to admit. I mean, what would have prevented Levi from running off with the idea? But of course he knew Levi's reputation and he knew he wouldn't do that. He also knew that even though Levi wasn't a manufacturer, he thought big. He was a big idea guy. And he would probably think this was a big idea. And he literally did. And the documents that are in copies of which are in the National Archives in Philadelphia, there's this handwritten pencil note, note to lawyer, write to this guy.

Sign him up like now. I mean, literally days after he wrote this letter in July, July of 1872. So the patent was awarded after three tries with the patent office on May 20th, 1873, for an improvement in fastening pocket openings, which is really boring language for basically the invention of the blue jean. So this is, it gets pretty exciting right off the bat. There's a magazine published out of San Francisco called Pacific Rural Press, very influential with ranchers, farmers, a lot of people who make farm machinery, whatever. The kind of people who would wear really tough riveted pants. And they had a little article about the pants in one of their issues.

And I want to read you a little bit of it. So they talk about, you know, this invention seems very simple, but it's really very effective. And we are sure it's going to become quite popular amongst our working men. Nothing looks more slouchy in a workman than to see his pockets ripped open and hanging down. And no other part of the clothing is so apt to be torn and ripped as the pockets.

Besides its slouchy appearance, it is inconvenient and often results in the person losing things from his pockets. All right, seriously, I really don't think the guys were worried that their pants look slouchy, you know. But the point was there would be no more slouchy pockets because they had rivets, those pockets had rivets in them. So the first pants were made of denim. Basically denim does, was created first in France, probably in the 17th century. And it was a serge fabric, a type of weave from the town of Nimes.

And so it was serge de Nimes. And so by the time English textile manufacturers were making it, they were calling it serge de Nimes because even though you have an English fabric, if you give it a zippy French name, you know, it's really good marketing. But eventually they anglicized the word to denim. And then by the 18th century, when American textile mills started to make denim, it was always in English denim. And it was always all cotton, even though in the very beginning it was actually a wool and silk blend. George Washington toured a Massachusetts textile mill in 1789 and watched denim being made. So, you know, and there are still people who write and say that Levi got the denim from France for his first jeans and they tended to tell those stories in France.

I was like, no. First, the first jeans were made of denim and the denim came from the Amisgag manufacturing company in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was the biggest textile mill in the country and they did make the very best denim in the United States. There were no denim mills or textile mills in California.

Levi did have to go all the way to Manchester, New Hampshire. There was a fabric called jean, J-E-A-N, which was being made at the same time as denim. And it tended to be indigo blue, just like denim was.

It was easily absorbed by the cotton, you know, it was a color that everybody liked, you know, whatever. Pants made of jean fabric were called jeans. And actually Kentucky jeans was a very specific type of pant.

And it originally was made in Kentucky, but again, it was one of those things. Everybody knew what Kentucky jeans were and they were made in other places, but not necessarily always in Kentucky. But it was made of jean fabric. Denim is one colored thread and one white thread together. Jean fabric was two threads of the same color.

So it looked like denim, but it didn't have, you know, denim will have that white that kind of will kind of, you know, the fill will come through a little bit. Jean fabric was just, you know, blue. So jeans, I mean, Levi Strauss sold jeans pants in his dry goods inventory before the jeans were invented. Here's why we call them jeans today. So men had worn un- riveted denim pants for a long time and they were just called, you know, denim overalls.

When Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis put rivets in those for the first time, it created a new category of workwear, which is the blue jean. But they were called overalls until about the 1950s. And then teenage boys who saw Marlon Brando wear 501 jeans in movies, you know, scary motorcycle guy, they wanted to be like him and they wanted to wear those pants. But their dads called them overalls, so they started calling them jeans.

They didn't want to wear overalls like their dad. It had to be jeans, cool jeans pants like Marlon Brando did. I don't even really know why they appropriated that word, but it was the new word, you know, it was just a new word for the pants that were already there.

And it was a new modern word for something that had been around since the 1870s. The changes in the jeans went over time and usually were because of changes in fashion and wanting to modernize, you know, what the jeans were. So the rivets on the back pockets were always on the outside, but then in the 1920s and 30s, the company was getting complaints saying your rivets are scratching our saddles and our school decks and our car hoods, which I don't know about that. And so what the company did was put the rivets in the pockets, but then sew the pockets over so the rivets were there, but then they, you know, they wouldn't scratch.

But they were eventually taken out completely in I think 1967. There was a rivet at the base of the button fly, the indelicately named crotch rivet. And there was all this anecdotal evidence, you know, people were writing in, you know, when we crouch in front of a campfire, this rivet heats up in a really delicate place. And the company is like, what a bunch of wimpy cowboys. And then it happened to the president of the company, Mr. Walter Haas. But about that time it was World War II had started and American clothing manufacturers had to take a certain amount of metal off of their clothing. And so I'm sure there was a meeting at the company's like, okay, nobody likes this rivet. We have to get rid of some rivets.

It's going. So they had, you know, they had to find a place to set up shop. The company didn't have, didn't own any manufacturing space until the 1880s. So this is 1873. So they leased some, leased a space on Market Street and they had to advertise for women to sew the pants.

And so here's a typical ad. This was in the San Francisco Chronicle, I believe in July of 1873. Wanted 50 first-class female sewing machine operators who can bring their own machines with them. Either Singers No. 2 or Grover and Bakers No. 1 for sewing heavy work. Steady and remunerative employment at 415 Market Street upstairs.

All right. I read this and I thought, oh my God, I've got this image of these poor women, you know, dragging these machines up Market Street. But they really were very small and very portable at this time. And it was actually apparently not that unusual for the women to take them around with them.

But eventually the company did get some sewing machines so the women didn't have to bring their own. So Levi had brought Jacob Davis from Reno to be in charge of the manufacturing. And Levi stayed with the dry goods. That's what he knew. That was his business. So Jacob was in charge.

Jacob and his family lived on Folsom Street, fairly near to the, to the leased and the new factories. And he became a Levi Strauss and Company employee. And you're listening to Lynn Downey and she's the author of Levi Strauss, the Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World. And my goodness, what a story of innovation, of opportunism, and in the end of pure flexibility and seeing something new and going for it. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of free enterprise, of freedom and the country itself.

Levi Strauss' story continues here on Our American Stories. We'll be right back. We'll be right back. We'll be right back. We'll be right back. We'll be right back.

We'll be right back. They wear like iron was an early advertising slogan. And it's very, very true. So among the early consumers were, of course, cowboys. And that's, that stayed as a classic consumer for a very, very long time.

Miners, of course, and agricultural workers. But there was one person, one very important person, who never wore a pair of jeans in his life. And that was Levi Strauss.

It would be completely inappropriate for him to wear jeans. He was not a laborer . He was a wealthy businessman. He was a capitalist.

He wore a black broadcloth suit, a silk tie, and carried a top hat. So manufacturing is going on. And the company was making a lot of flyers for the salespeople to give to potential retail clients. And a lot of them were saying something called home industry. And this was 19th century code for the fact that they only hired white women and girls in the factory. And this is one of the pieces of Levi history that is classic and standard for San Francisco history that I have the blessing of Bob Hodge and the entire Hodge family to talk about.

Because that's how they told me to write this book. Which is that Levi Strauss did not hire Chinese in his factory. Because the discrimination in San Francisco was about the Chinese.

The railroad had been completed in 1869. There were no more jobs. White men, Chinese men were coming into San Francisco to look for jobs. There was a lot of hateful rhetoric and violence. And people didn't want their clothes made by filthy Chinese.

Who lived in that strange place called Chinatown and ate strange food. And some of it ended up on Levi Strauss and Company advertising. This is a price list that would have gone to a retail store, said manufactured by white labor.

And there's quite a few of those. For a while it was even stamped on the inside of the pocket bag of the jeans. It was a selling point. It was a point of pride for the company. I don't know how Levi Strauss personally felt about the Chinese.

But as a businessman he knew that there was no way that he could sell his product and keep his business unless he adhered to the prevailing prejudice. We don't like it. It's ugly. It's icky.

But it's real. And that is who he was. That's one of the one of the reasons that and I'll talk about this later that I find him so fascinated is because he's not predictable and he's complicated. And maybe at times he might not have been very easy to like.

But that's why that's why he was so interesting to me. About a year after Levi arrived in San Francisco he made his first charitable contribution. It was five dollars to the San Francisco Orphan Asylum Society which today by the way is the Edgewood Center for Children and Families.

That's still as out in the Sunset District still in business. And he that was the beginning of a life long process of philanthropy that was personally important to him but also very much a tenant of his Jewish faith. We know it's really easy to track his his giving because a lot of it showed up in the newspapers. And I can there there are personal donations that he made and corporate donations. And when you see when I evaluated all where all his money went you can see what meant most to him personally. A lot of his money went to take care of young people and to educate young people.

So he's becoming this amazing philanthropist and but the business is you know keeps on going. And he and a lot of his other managers know that when you have a patent on something so they had an actual patent on the process of making riveted clothing. You don't get to keep that forever. It's not like a trademark. Eventually inventions have to benefit the public domain. So they knew in 1892 that patent was going to run out and anybody who wanted to could start making riveted clothing.

Oh my God. So what the as we get closer and closer to the 1890s the company started basically branding the product. In 1886 the famous two horse pole we don't know if it was ever real we don't know.

People have tried. First one on the pants was put on the patch on the pants and also used in print on flyers on invoices everywhere blanketed everything with this logo. And it was partly branding but I have a feeling there was another reason for this.

So not everybody in the American West was literate and not everybody in the American West spoke English as their first language. And if you go in a store and there's some competitors you know product there and you don't speak English or you don't read you can say oh I want the one with the two horses. No you can point to the picture of the brand that you want. It was very very smart marketing and I think probably fairly common. But that and the product was called the two horse brand until 1927 when the company had to register the name Levi's as a trademark because Levi's was becoming a generic like Kleenex. But forever it was the two horse brand. So in about 1890 the company started to assign three digit lot numbers to all of its products. And that's when we first see is 1890 or 1892 this famous 501. And here's where we have one of those you know I need to drink my dinner at night kind of days when people would tell me oh I know where the number 501 came from.

No you don't. Nobody knows. There was newspaper advertising and funky you know the Bodie courier and funky newspapers all over the West. Really interesting visual you know display ads as well with strong and durable you know great language. And this goes along with with other stories that I found and letters that people had had written to the company all you know early of the century that his employees called him Levi. He wasn't Mr. Strauss. Even and his customers you know called him Levi. He did not have this you know this barrier between himself and the men who wore you know jeans or or people that were you know his customers.

He really appeared to be a truly personable and apparently a guy with a great sense of humor. Levi never married. He moved in with his sister Fanny and her family when he was in his early 40s. And then she passed away and then he he lived with his oldest nephew who was Jacob Stern. And it was Jacob Stern's house where he was living when he passed away and that was the house that went down in 1906. He died on September 26, 1902. He was 73 years old. He had not even really been ill.

He maybe hadn't felt so good for a couple of days and went to bed after dinner and went to sleep and never woke up. The funeral was held out of his home. Jacob Vorsanger the rabbi of Temple Emmanuel gave the eulogy.

They had a special train to go down to home of peace in Colma. They closed the business for the day so all the employees could come to the funeral. You know people always say nice things about people at your funeral right? But I have a feeling that every wonderful thing that was said about Levi was true and everything seemed so very very sincere. And then there were so many obituaries and articles about him in newspapers after his death that just seemed to echo everything that the rabbi had said that makes me really feel that it was very very true.

So the earthquake and fire happens. The building goes down and he had left the business to his four nephews. He had four nephews and three nieces. In his will he left the business which is the majority of his business to the nephews. He left lots of money to orphanages, mostly orphanages and what were called the benevolent associations. These were organizations mostly for the Jewish indigent widows and orphans, people who weren't able to take care of themselves.

There was the Eureka Benevolent Society, the first Hebrew Benevolent Society. He left a lot of money to them and then he left each of his nieces $25,000 not to their husbands to administer for them but directly to his nieces and then the bulk of the business to his four nephews. His estate by the way was valued at six million dollars and that's six million in 1902 dollars. So the four nephews didn't have to work. They were incredibly wealthy.

They had real estate that could have just skated on their money the rest of their lives but they didn't do that. They rebuilt the company. They rebuilt the building on the very same place.

It was 98 Battery. This building is still there. It's at the corner of Pine and the company was there from 1908 until the 1970s when they went to Embarcadero Center. So the Stern brothers also kept the company name. They could have started over. They could have said, oh now we're Stern brothers.

No. It was Levi Strauss and Co. again. So the family that owns the company today is the Haas family. So one of Levi Strauss's nephews was Sigmund Stern.

You've all heard of Sigmund Stern Grove. Well that was Levi's nephew, Sigmund. And he and his wife had a daughter named Elise. And Elise Stern married Mr. Walter Haas Sr., the gentleman in this photo. And it's his descendants that own the company today. His grandson Bob Haas is the man who hired me for my job as historian and he is the reason I call Levi Uncle Levi because he is the great great grandnephew of Levi Strauss himself.

And it is the Haas family that of course still owns the company. Now Jacob Davis sold his interest in the patent back to the company about 1906 and then he died in 1908. His son Simon worked for Levi's for about 20 years and then he left and started his own clothing business which didn't really do very well. Then in 1935 he opened another business which he named after his son and that is still in business today which is Ben Davis.

The work clothing company with the little gorilla on the label. Ben Davis was Jacob Davis's grandson and they're still in business today. And you've been listening to Lynn Downey telling the story of Levi Strauss. Her biography, Levi Strauss the man who gave blue jeans to the world. The Levi Strauss story. An American dreamer story like none we've ever told as good as ever.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-18 18:22:58 / 2023-01-18 18:41:50 / 19

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