There is a strong chance that as you are reading this you are wearing blue jeans or at the very least have a pair in your closet. Let us go back 143 years to May 20, 1873 – it is quite an historic date: the birth day of the blue jeans when Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained a U.S. patent on the process of putting rivets in men’s work pants for the very first time.
Levi Strauss, a Bavarian-born dry goods merchant, came to San Francisco in 1853 at the age of 24 to open a West Coast branch of his brothers’ New York wholesale dry goods business. Over the next 20 years, he built his business into a very successful operation, making a name for himself not only as a well-respected businessman. One of Levi’s customers was a tailor named Jacob Davis.
One day the wife of a local labourer asked Jacob to make a pair of pants for her husband that wouldn’t fall apart. Jacob tried to think of a way to strengthen the trousers and came up with the idea to put metal rivets at points of strain, like pocket corners and the base of the button fly.
These riveted pants were an instant hit. Jacob quickly decided to take out a patent on the process, but needed a business partner to help get the project rolling. He immediately thought of Levi Strauss, from whom he had purchased the cloth to make his riveted pants.
Davis wrote to Levi to suggest that the two men hold the patent together. Levi, being an astute businessman, saw the potential for this new product, and agreed to Jacob’s proposal. The two men received patent #139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on May 20, 1873.
Soon, the first riveted clothing was made and sold. Levis made the first jeans out of denim — the traditional fabric for men’s workwear. Within a very short time, the jean was a bona fide success. (Although, we should note that they were called “waist overalls” or “overalls” until 1960, when baby boomers adopted the name “jeans.”)
May 20, 1873 is considered to be the “birthday” of blue jeans, because although denim pants had been around as workwear for many years, it was the act of placing rivets in these traditional pants for the first time that created what we now call jeans.
The next time you see someone wearing a pair of Levi’s® jeans, remember that these pants are a direct descendant of that first pair made back in 1873. That year, two visionary immigrants — Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis — turned denim, thread and a little metal into what has become the most popular apparel on earth.
The word jeans comes from a kind of material that was made in Europe. The material, called jean, was named after sailors from Genoa in Italy, because they wore clothes made from it. The word ‘denim’ probably came from the name of a French material, serge de Nimes: serge (a kind of material) from Nimes (a town in France).
At first, jean cloth was made from a mixture of things. However, in the eighteenth century as trade, slave labour, and cotton plantations increased, jean cloth was made completely from cotton. Workers wore it because the material was very strong and it did not wear out easily. It was usually dyed with indigo, a dye taken from plants in the Americas and India, which made jean cloth a dark blue colour.
In the 1930’s, Hollywood made lots of western movies. Cowboys – who often wore jeans in the movies-became very popular. Many Americans who lived in the eastern states went for vacations on ‘dude ranches’ and took pairs of denim ‘waist overalls’ back east with them when they went home.
Fewer jeans were made during the time of World War 2, but ‘waist overalls’ were introduced to the world by American soldiers, who sometimes wore them when they were off duty. After the war, Levi began to sell their clothes outside the American West. Rival companies, like Wrangler and Lee, began to compete with Levi for a share of this new market.
In the 1950’s, denim became popular with young people. It was the symbol of the teenage rebel in TV programmes and movies (like James Dean in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause). Some schools in the USA banned students from wearing denim. Teenagers called the waist overalls ‘jean pants’ – and the name stayed.
In the 1960’s embroidered jeans and denim were a must and I am sure that many of us remember as teenagers embroidering jeans, shirts, waistcoats and bags trying to make them fashionable.
Maybe blue jeans are responsible for those of us that were teenagers in the 60’s and 70’s, love of embroidery today – now there is an interesting thought !
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