February 26,1829, was the day Levi Strauss, pioneer of blue jeans and founder of the company that still bears his name, was born. Although Levi's jeans were long seen as the quintessential American article of clothing, Loeb Strauss (his given name) was a Bavarian-born Jew from the town of Buttenheim, who arrived in the United States with his family only in 1845. His father, Hirsch Strauss, had died two years earlier, and his mother, Rebecca Haas Strauss (Hirsch’s second wife), sailed with her younger children and stepchildren to join two of the older sons, who had already set up a dry-goods business in New York.
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By January 1853, 23-year-old Levi headed west to San Francisco, to seek his fortune by opening a branch of the family business to sell clothing and accessories to the California Gold Rushers. In 1872, one of his clients, Jacob Davis, a Reno, Nevada, tailor, sent Strauss a letter, describing how he used copper rivets to strengthen the stress points of the work pants that he fashioned out of fabric bought from the Californian. Davis suggested that the two seek a patent for the riveting method – a patent that was granted on May 20, 1873. The rivets were fastened at the corners of the pockets and the base of the fly.
By then, Levi Strauss was already an established member of San Francisco society, active in the city’s first synagogue, Congregation Emanu-El, and other institutions. Davis joined him in California, where he oversaw the tailor shop Strauss established for the production of the “XX” model of “waist overalls,” as these trousers were then called. (In 1890, the year the firm became incorporated, it also replaced “XX” with “501,” arguably the brand's most popular style that is still sold today.) The cotton denim itself was originally produced by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, of Manchester, New Hampshire.
Until the 1920s, Levi’s jeans were sold mainly in the West, and served for the most part as work clothes. Soon after, they started making their way east, mainly with vacationers who had encountered them at dude ranches they had visited. In World War II, they became an item rationed to defense workers, and to conserve thread, the company was forbidden from applying the decorative double arch stitching on the rear pockets of the jeans, which had by then become something of a trademark. (They had the arches painted onto the pockets for the duration of the war.)
As for the company’s founder – Levi Strauss died on September 26, 1902. Because he had never married and did not have a family of his own, Strauss left his business and estate to his four nephews, the children of his sister Fanny and her husband, David Stern. That estate was valued at $6 million, or some $160 million in 2013 terms. In addition to what he bequeathed to family members, he also bestowed gifts on the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Home for Aged Israelites, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Orphan Asylums and the Emanu-El Sisterhood, among other beneficiaries.
By 2010, Levi Strauss & Co., which had gone from being family-owned to being publicly shared, was once again a private company, controlled by relatives of Levi Strauss’ nephews. The firm employed more than 16,000 people worldwide, and raked in $4.4 billion in revenues.