May 20

This Day in History

Old West

May 20, 1873:

Levi Strauss patents copper-riveted jeans

Acting at the behest of a Reno, Nevada, tailor who had invented the idea, Levi Strauss secures the necessary patents for canvas pants with copper rivets to reinforce the stress points.

Born in Buttenheim, Bavaria, in 1829, the young Levi Strauss emigrated to the United States in 1847. Strauss initially went into business selling dry goods along the East Coast, but in 1852, his brother-in-law encouraged him to relocate to the booming city of San Francisco. He arrived in San Francisco in 1853 with a load of merchandise that he hoped to sell in the California mining camps. Unable to sell a large supply of canvas, Strauss hit on the idea of using the durable material to make work pants for miners. Strauss' canvas pants were an immediate success among hardworking miners who had long complained that conventional pants wore out too quickly.

In 1872, Strauss received a letter from Jacob Davis, a customer and tailor who worked in the mining town of Reno, Nevada. Davis reported that he had discovered canvas pants could be improved if the pocket seams and other weak points that tended to tear were strengthened by copper rivets. Davis' riveted pants had proven popular in Reno, but he needed a patent to protect his invention. Intrigued by the copper-riveted pants, Strauss and his partners agreed to undertake the necessary legal work for the patent and begin large-scale production of the pants. Davis' invention was patented on this day in 1873. In exchange for his idea, Strauss made the Reno tailor his production manager. Eventually, Strauss switched from using canvas to heavyweight blue denim, and the modern "blue jeans" were born.

Since then, Levi Strauss & Company has sold more than 200 million pairs of copper-riveted jeans. By the turn of the century, people outside of the mining and ranching communities had discovered that "Levi's" were both comfortable and durable. Eventually, the jeans lost most of their association with the West and came to be simply a standard element of the casual American wardrobe.

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