One hundred and fifty years ago, in May 1873, a Jewish peddler turned Gold Rush merchant created the garment of choice for forty-niners and cowboys. Now, a century and a half later, blue jeans are an international symbol of independence, equality, freedom, and youth. Two Jewish men made it possible - Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis.
Originally named Loeb, Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria, Germany. As Jews living in Bavaria, his family experienced religious discrimination. His widowed mother, Rebecca Haas Strauss, decided to emigrate to the United States. Levi Strauss came to New York in 1847. Toting 100 pounds of sewing goods, blankets, and kettles, he walked New York and environs as an itinerant peddler, coming back to lower Manhattan every Friday evening Shabbat.
Jacob W. Davis was a tailor who invented copper rivet reinforcement for pants. Born to a Latvian-Jewish family in the city of Riga in 1831, he emigrated to the United States in 1854 and opened a tailor shop. He used heavy duty cotton “duck” and heavy duty cotton “denim” fabric for making tents for prospectors, horse blankets for teamsters, and wagon covers for stagecoach companies. He bought fabric from Levi Strauss & Co. from San Francisco. In the late 1870s, a woman came to him for a pair of “cheap” pants for her “large” husband. Having found that thread alone did not always adequately hold the pockets onto work pants, Jacob decided to try out rivets.
Unable to afford a patent application, Davis proposed a partnership with Levi Strauss & Co. in 1872. Strauss agreed, and the Nevada man moved to San Francisco to become head tailor and production foreman. By the end of 1873, workers around the globe were wearing Strauss and Davis’s durable pants.
May 20, 1873, Strauss and Davis received US patent № 139121 for the riveting process to strengthen the pockets of denim work pants. “Waist overalls” with rivets were worn by workers and children until World War II.
Strauss and Davis, two Jewish immigrants, struck it rich, not in the gold mines, but in making clothing.
One of the Jewish mothers we honor on Mother’s Day in May is Rebecca Strauss. Eastern European Jewish culture fostered in her an intense style of mothering, which served to equip the children for survival and for success, in an often hostile environment.
Levi Strauss supported numerous religious and social causes. He helped establish the first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, in the city, and gave money to Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Hebrew Board of Relief, the University of California and other civic and cultural institutions.
The New American Acculturation Program is grateful to our Jewish community for helping students learn about American and Jewish history and traditions.