(1829 - 1902)
The discovery at Sutters Mill set off the historic
California Gold Rush of 1848 and changed the face of America. One product of
those heady times has become an enduring part of American popular culture:
Levis jeans. The durable denim pants were brought to market by Levi
Strauss, a Jewish dry goods merchant living in San Francisco, to meet the
needs of uncouth miners in Californias gold fields. Today, Levis jeans
have evolved into a world-recognized form of haute couture.
When the magic words "Gold in California" leaked
out, hundreds of thousands of Americans, Mexicans, Europeans and Asians risked
their lives to head for Northern California. The small town of San Francisco
became the hub through which 300,000 fortune hunters passed in the course of
five years. The city grew almost overnight to rival New York in wealth and
A fair number of prospectors who panned for gold in
northern Californias rivers or who dug mines "struck it rich,"
although most ‘Forty Niners, as they were known, came up empty handed. A
much larger number of fortunes were made from providing goods and services to
the miners and other migrants. Levi Strauss was one such entrepreneur.
While Strauss was not the "inventor" of the
garment known worldwide today as "Levis," he was surely
responsible for its success. In 1847, at the age of eighteen, Loeb (known as
Levi) Strauss, the youngest of seven children of Bavarian Jews, emigrated to
New York, where his older brothers had established the family dry goods
business. After peddling the companys wares in the rural areas of Kentucky
for three years, Levi Strauss became an American citizen in January 1853. He
subsequently joined his two older brothers and sister Fanny in San Francisco
to establish a branch of the business there. After opening his own shop on
Sacramento Street in downtown San Francisco, he brought in Fannys husband,
David Stern, to help him run the business. By 1866, bolstered by a reputation
for honesty and fair prices, Strauss was successful enough to open larger
headquarters on Battery Street, in which he installed gaslight chandeliers, a
freight elevator and other modern conveniences.
By his mid-thirties, Levi Strauss was a Jewish community
leader, supporting San Franciscos Temple Emanu-el and helping to fund the
gold medal awarded each year to the temples best Sabbath School student. He
was also a contributor to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the
Hebrew Board of Relief, the University of California and various other civic
and cultural institutions.
Strausss big break came in 1872, when he was approached
by Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor who had developed a new process for securing
the seams of denim pants - which were already popular with miners, ranchers
and farmers - by riveting them at the pockets and the base of the button fly.
Davis could not afford the $81 needed to apply for a patent for his riveting
process, so he asked Strauss if he would pay the fee and share the patent.
Strauss brought Davis to San Francisco to oversee the pant manufacturing. The
riveted jean quickly developed a reputation for durability and quality, and
Levi Strauss and Company soon employed several hundred sewing workers. In
1890, Strauss incorporated the business with his sisters four sons and
placed them in charge of day-to-day operations. Single his whole life, Levi
Strauss turned his company into a family business by sharing it with his
nephews, who helped develop Levi Strauss and Company into a worldwide force in
retail clothing. In an age of public ownership and Wall Street capitalization,
the firm remains a family business owned and managed by Strauss descendants.
The family has maintained Levis philanthropic practices.
Even as his company grew in size, Strauss insisted that his
employees, whatever their position in the company, call him Levi, rather than
Mr. Strauss. When he died peacefully at home at age 73, the City of San
Francisco declared a business holiday so that the communitys business
leaders could attend the funeral at Temple Emanu-el. After the service, his
employees accompanied the casket to the railway station, where it was put on a
train for burial in the Jewish cemetery in Colma, a town south of San
Levi Strauss, a man of integrity who built a legendary
business by providing a durable, high quality product backed by his own name
and his familys reputation, has left an enduring mark on American and world
Jewish Historical Society