Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Eureka Moments Revisited Part 4, Levis in the Gold Rush, Myth or Fact ?

    The California Gold Rush produced enough wealth to finance countless business ventures but very few survived to the present day. One of the survivors of that turbulent time is the world renown Levi Strauss & Co. What this post will explore, is the truth behind the persistent story that Levi Strauss sewed blue jean trousers for miners, in the early days of the Gold Rush.

     During my first year of volunteering at Columbia State Historic Park, I was told by the docent in charge of men's costumes, that it was a "fact" that Levi Strauss had personally made canvas trousers for miners from the sailcloth of abandoned ships in San Francisco harbor. He explained that the reason the fabric was dyed blue, was because Levi wanted to hide the fact that the canvas was soiled. Over the years, I have heard many tales of the origins of blue jeans, some even from teachers, who I know have access to accurate information. I've read skewed examples of the story in history books and cringed when I heard "talking head" historians tell their version, in several documentary films. The thing that makes me crazy is that there is an element of truth in some of the "tales" but the actual story is far more interesting. Today's Levi Strauss & Co. has made every effort to tell the true history but the myths continue. I will try to shed some light on this story and then show and tell how I made my own pair of "early" Levis that I use to teach with.

Levis Strauss
Gold Rush Merchant
image courtesy abcpedia.us

    The story starts in 1853, with the arrival in San Francisco of a Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss. Levi was acting on behalf of his family's New York dry goods company, J. Strauss Brother & Co., with the intention of starting a new business in the boom or bust "City by the Bay". Dry Goods merchants typically sold fabric and ready-made clothing as their staples and Levi was no exception. He immediately began wholesaling to other merchants who could barely keep up with the needs of their consumers, namely miners. So, here is your first element of truth. A miner could have purchased a pair of typical, strudy work trousers from his local merchant that might have been from Levis's wholesale warehouse, but they would have been made elsewhere, most likely back East. Nothing remarkable here, just the business of business. So what was the big deal that starts the ball rolling towards the birth of the iconic blue-jean ? Well, that isn't until 1873, long after the gold-crazed rush had settled down a bit.

Illustration from the Original
1873 Davis Patent

     A Reno Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis was a good customer of Levi Strauss in the early 1870's. Jacob purchased his fabric from Levi to make his stock-in-trade clothing, some of which was for laborers and Comstock miners. A woman customer had requested that Jacob come up with a way to make sturdier trousers for her husband. Jacob hit on the idea of riveting the seams of his trousers, at their stress points, to improve their longevity. It was so successful that he could barely keep up with the demand for his "new" riveted trousers or waist overalls as they were called. Sensing that his idea might get away, Jacob approached his old business associate Levi Strauss, with the thought of having him help patent this revolutionary concept. Levi knew a good thing when he saw it and the rest is history. Jacob ended up with job at Levi's, producing the new trousers that would soon take the world by storm. The only reason they used blue denim jean, was because it was a favorite fabric choice for work-wear, nothing more. So, what did these first Blue Jeans look like ?

Oldest Pair of Levis, Held by
Lynn Downey, L.S. & Co. Historian
image courtesy fashioncraz.com

      Unfortunately, Levi Strauss & Co. lost all of their early records in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, but on occasion, rare historical material relating to the company, will surface. In the recent past, L. S. & Co. was lucky enough to purchase what they believe is the earliest surviving pair of  jeans, dated circa 1879. When I studied the pictures of those trousers, I discovered that this earliest survivor shares a lot with its modern 501 cousin. The single back pocket,  belted-back and lack of belt loops are the most obvious differences.

My Replica
Images Lindy Miller 2012

     For my replica, I chose to use Past Patterns #710 Union Issue Trowsers pattern to start with. I had to alter the pattern's side pocket design to duplicate the traditional scooping front pockets of the original trousers. My modern 501 jeans gave me just the clues I needed to amend the pattern. A medium weight, 100% cotton denim was easy enough to locate as it's still a common staple in the fabric world. I used the smallest, 2 piece, solid copper rivets I could find and brass 4 hole buttons, which I modified with the addition of a rim and depressed center. I found it was easy to use an awl to open a hole for the rivets, rather than punching one. After wearing the trousers off and on for a year, they've started to look the part of a survivor. It's not a perfect replica as I'm not trying to deceive anyone. The reason I created this replica was to use it as a visual aid while teaching a "truer" version of one of the greatest success stories that ever came out of Gold Rush California.

Replica Rear View

     If you wish more information on the history of the Levi Strauss & Co., I would suggest you visit their website or purchase a copy of  " Images of America, Levi Strauss & Co.", by Lynn Downey, Arcadia Publishing 2007.