Loeb “Levi” Strauss was born to German-Jewish parents, Hirsch and Rebecca Strauss, in Buttenheim, Bavaria (Germany) on February 26, 1829. Hirsch Strauss supported his family by earning a modest living as a dry-goods salesman, but in 1845 he became sick with tuberculosis and died. The death of the family patriarch, coupled with widespread anti-Semitism in 19th Century Bavaria, made life even more difficult for the Strauss family. Consequently, after their father’s death, two of Levi’s older brothers left Bavaria in order to live among the large and emancipated Jewish community in New York City. In June 1847, Levi, his mother and two sisters made the long journey by sea from the German port city of Bremerhaven to New York in order to join their family there.
Early Years in the United States
As a young man, Levi joined his brothers as a salesman in the dry-goods business, “J. Strauss Brother & Co.,” that they began in 1848. The following year, Levi went to the American frontier state of Kentucky in order to live on his uncle’s ranch. In Kentucky he learned a great deal about ranching from his uncle, but ultimately turned to the family trade of peddling goods, which he was quite good at. However, it wasn’t long before he was hearing accounts of the California gold rush and the fortunes that were being made there. Soon after becoming a United States citizen in January 1853, he made arrangements to journey to San Francisco.
Life in San Francisco
Levi Strauss left New York City for San Francisco in February 1853. The long journey involved travel by boat to Panama, where he disembarked and crossed the rugged and malaria-infested Panama Isthmus by land, before boarding another boat that sailed to San Francisco. He arrived in March 1853, joining two older brothers and a sister there. He began working as a salesman for his brothers’ company, but also started his own company, with his brother-in-law, David Stern, in San Francisco. The two partners sold all types of dry goods, including, among other things, tents, draperies, fabric, clothing, boots, and umbrellas. However, it quickly became apparent that what miners most needed were pants that could withstand the harsh treatment that a miner’s life brought. Catering to his customers demands, Levi Strauss employed seamstresses to create “waist overalls” from sturdy denim fabric.
In 1863, the company was renamed “Levi Strauss & Co.,” and by 1870 Levi Strauss was a millionaire. In 1872 he received a letter from Jacob Davis, a European immigrant tailor who had a business supplying miners with tough work clothes. Davis was also a regular customer of Levi Strauss; making the work clothes he tailored from Levi’s fabric. Based on feedback from his miner clients, Davis applied rivets to the pocket corners in order to prevent them from ripping from the strain of overstuffed pockets. Davis proposed to Levi Strauss that Strauss provide the money for the patent application and, in exchange, he would share the patent with Strauss. On May 20, 1873, patent #139121 for copper riveted work pants was granted to Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis, and Levi’s blue jeans were born. In 1890, with the introduction of the “XX” waist overall, also known as “Lot 501,” the style of blue jean as we know it today was born.
The Legacy of Levi Strauss:
Levi Strauss died on Saturday, September 27, 1902, at the age of 73 years old. His death was front-page news, and businesses in San Francisco closed on the day of his funeral so his friends and peers in the business community could attend the services. He was remembered as a fair and honest man who was not only industrious, but also very generous.
Aside from owning dry goods and clothing businesses, he was also the part owner of San Francisco’s Oriental Hotel, a part owner of a woolen mill, a director on the board of a bank, an insurance company, and the San Francisco Gas & Electric Company. Moreover, he was a charter member of the San Francisco Board of Trade.
Levi Strauss believed in sharing his good fortune with others. He contributed generously to several organizations and charities. He was among the first to contribute to the capital campaign for San Francisco’s first Jewish synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. He also contributed “to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Hebrew Board of Relief.” 1 Furthermore, he funded 28 scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley. Finally, upon his death, “bequests were made to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Home for Aged Israelites, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Orphan Asylums, Eureka Benevolent Society and the Emanu-El Sisterhood.” 2
A lifelong bachelor, Levi Strauss left the company that bears his name to his four nephews. The company continues to be privately held by their descendents and is headquartered in San Francisco, as it has been throughout its history.
Sources & Links
Definitions are taken from Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary
Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group
To free from restraint, control, or the power of another; especially : to free from bondage
A man who is father or founder