Identification: German-born American clothing manufacturer and philanthropist Born: February 26, 1829; Buttenheim, Bavaria (now in Germany)
Died: September 26, 1902; San Francisco, California
Significance: A civic-minded industrialist, Levi Strauss founded a large clothing business that was dedicated to the fair treatment
Of its workers, a large part of whom were immigrants.
Born in German Bavaria in 1829, Leob “Levi” Strauss was the youngest child of Jewish parents, Hirsch and Rebecca Strauss. His father earned a modest income as a dry-goods peddler but died from tuberculosis in 1845, when Levi was only sixteen. At that time, anti-Semitism was widespread in Bavaria, so Levi’s two older brothers emigrated from the country to the United States. They settled in New York City, where they opened a dry-goods business in a large Jewish community. Two years later, Levi, his mother, and his sisters acquired exit visas and passports that enabled them to emigrate and join the brothers in New York City, where Levi initially peddled dry goods.
In 1853, Strauss became an American citizen at the age of twenty-four. During that same year, he traveled west to California’s gold rush country to establish a West Coast branch of his brothers’ drygoods business. Near the wharves of San Francisco, he ran a shop with a brother-in-law, David Stern. Very soon he realized that one of the region’s greatest needs was for durable pants suitable for gold mining work. To meet that demand, he designed heavy-duty overalls made with denim fabric that rapidly became popular.
In 1863, the family company was renamed “Levi Strauss & Co.” By 1870, Strauss himself was already a millionaire. He teamed with an immigrant tailor, Jacob Davis, contributing the sixty-eight dollar filing fee on a patent to add copper rivets to stress-points on the pants’ seams. They received the patent on May 20, 1873.
Eager to share his good fortune, Strauss helped build a synagogue and establish an orphanage. As a member of the California Immigrant Union he encouraged immigration and promoted California products. He died in 1902 at the age of seventy-three, leaving bequests to Hebrew, Roman Catholic, and Protestant charities.
Lisa A. Wroble
Ford, Carin T. Levi Strauss: The Man Behind Blue Jeans. Berkeley Heights, N. J.: Enslow, 2004. Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Everyone Wears His Name: A Biography of Levi Strauss. New York: Dillon Press, 1990.
See also: California; California gold rush; Garment industry; German immigrants; Jewish immigrants; San Francisco.