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Bob Bowman's East Texas

The Origin of Blue Jeans

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

A few friends and I were sitting around drinking coffee a few days ago, and the subject of blue jeans came up, and we starting comparing notes on how old our jeans were.

“I’m not sure how old my jeans are, but they’re older than my kids,” said Roy.

Then the origin of blue jeans came up. And, being the historian, I was assigned the duty of finding out who invented them.

I found the answer in a neat little book, “The Best of the West,” by a fellow historian and friend, Bill O’Neal of Carthage.

The inventor was Levi Strauss who was only eighteen in 1847 when he came to America from his native Bavaria to work as a merchant in New York City. In 1853, he joined his brother-in-law David Stern in the dry goods business in San Francisco.

Leaving New York with a supply of cloth, Strauss sold almost all of it on the way to California, arriving in San Francisco with a single bolt of canvas tent cloth.

Meeting a mine worker in the city, he designed for the man a pair of heavy canvas pants. Recognizing his opportunity, he bought large quantities of canvas sail cloth from ships standing in the harbor.

Within a year Strauss and Stern had become the largest pant makers after switching from canvas to heavyweight blue denim.

The pants with copper rivets quickly became known as “blue jeans” or “Levis.” The pants quickly became popular with western workers because of their durability.

Levi. Strauss & Company was incorporated in 1890 and the San Francisco plant employed 500 workers to meet the demand. Strauss, who now had the most famous name in the west, grossed one million dollars in 1902. He died in 1902, but his four nephews continued to produce Levi’s.

At first, cowhands resisted the strong denim trousers, looking upon them as the uniform of miners and other workers the cowhands disdained.

In time, however, Levi’s became regulation wear for cowboys.

Turned up cuffs on the trouser legs were used to hold horseshoe nails while shoeing horses and by the early 1900s Levis were often worn with shirts sporting snap buttons.

Rodeo cowboys, who sometimes were caught on saddle horns by unyielding shirt fronts, requested the snap buttons so they could quickly free themselves from a wild bronc.

Bob Bowman's East Texas
January 10, 2011 Column.
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers

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(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of almost 50 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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The Forgotten Towns of East Texas, Vol. I
By Bob and Doris Bowman
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This page last modified: January 10, 2011