Do you know this Jew? You probably own one of his “jeans”


Jordan Palmer, St. Louis Jewish Light

The discovery at Sutter’s Mill set off the historic California Gold Rush of 1848 and changed the face of America. It also created a fashion trend that America endures to this very day, and has become a part of popular culture: Levi’s jeans.

The 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 goldfields. Today, Levi’s jeans have evolved into a world-recognized form of haute couture.

While Strauss did not “invent” what is now known worldwide as “Levi’s,” he was responsible for their success. In 1847, at age 18, 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.

Levi Strauss became an American citizen in January 1853. He joined his two older brothers and sister Fanny in San Francisco to establish a branch of the business there. After opening his own shop in downtown San Francisco, he brought in Fanny’s husband, David Stern, to help him run the business.

By his mid-thirties, Levi Strauss had become a Jewish community leader, supporting San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-el.

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.

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.