The discovery at Sutter’s 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: Levi’s 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 California’s gold fields. Today, Levi’s 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 commerce.
A fair number of prospectors who panned for gold in northern California’s 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 "Levi’s," 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 company’s 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 Fanny’s 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 Francisco’s Temple Emanu-el and helping to fund the gold medal awarded each year to the temple’s 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.
Strauss’s 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 sister’s 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 Levi’s 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 community’s 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 Francisco.
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 family’s reputation, has left an enduring mark on American and world culture.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society