Levi Strauss (1829-1902)

The name Levi Strauss is famous worldwide, and will be forever linked to the world’s first blue jeans, a product he helped to create. But Strauss was more than just the manifestation of his various denim products. He started his business when San Francisco was a raw, rowdy town and when he was only in his early twenties. The man and the city grew up together, as Strauss helped to make it the commercial capital of the West.

Updated: February 18, 2014

Introduction

The name Levi Strauss (born February 26, 1829 in Buttenheim, Upper Franconia, Kingdom of Bavaria; died September 26, 1902 in San Francisco, California) is famous worldwide, and will be forever linked to the world’s first blue jeans, a product he helped to create. But Strauss was more than just the manifestation of his various denim products. He started his business when San Francisco was a raw, rowdy town and when he was only in his early twenties. The man and the city grew up together, as Strauss helped to make it the commercial capital of the West. He loved his family, and was true to his Jewish faith and its tradition of caring for the less fortunate. The causes he supported ranged from scholarships for poor students at the University of California at Berkeley to financial assistance for Jewish and Protestant orphanages. He built a business that came back and grew stronger even after it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Using a phrase that neatly sums up Levi Strauss’s fascinating life, a former sewing machine operator once said of him: “He was tough, but a fine fellow.”[1]

Family and Ethnic Background

Strauss was born in the Bavarian province of Upper Franconia, a predominantly Catholic region containing a significant number of Jewish enclaves, which made it a center for Jewish life in the German lands. The three Franconian provinces (Upper, Middle, and Lower) had been incorporated into the Kingdom of Bavaria in the early nineteenth century as a reward for Bavarian neutrality in the late-eighteenth-century Napoleonic conflict between France and Austria. Levi’s birthplace, Buttenheim, was a medieval market town and a stop on an important trade road between Bamberg and Forchheim, which linked Hungary, southern Russia and the northeastern German kingdoms. Buttenheim’s main street is the Marktstrasse, or market street, and on November 16, 1780, Hirsch Strauss, son of Jacob and Meila, was born at Marktstrasse 134. He had at least one brother, called Lippmann, and his father, Jacob, was a cattle trader, one of the two main occupations for rural Jews in Franconia. The other was peddling, the work that young Hirsch himself took up as an adult.

In 1787 Madel Schneider was born in the village, and she and Hirsch were married sometime around the summer of 1811. Their children soon began to arrive: Jacob was first, born in 1812, when the family was living at Marktstrasse 33. Rösla came along in 1813, after Hirsch and Madel had moved to the lower floor of Marktstrasse 83, a few doors away. Jonathan was next in 1815, followed by Lippmann in 1817 and Maila in 1821.[2]

Less than nine months later Madel Strauss was dead. Widower Hirsch Strauss, now a peddler who spent days or weeks away from home, needed to find another wife to help take care of his five children. By the spring of 1823, Hirsch, now forty-three, had married Rebekka Haas, another Buttenheim resident. Born on July 6, 1800 at Marktstrasse 76, Rebekka’s parents Seligmann and Henela were also local cattle traders. She and Hirsch lived in his home just up the street at number 83 Marktstrasse, which had been built around 1687, and by 1733 was a two-story structure. Hirsch, Rebekka, and the five children lived on the ground floor. On December 24, 1823, Hirsch and Rebekka’s daughter Vögele was born. Then, on February 26, 1829, they welcomed their second child, a boy they named Löb.

Young Löb was born into a society which believed that it had “emancipated” its Jews and given them full the rights of citizens. In reality, Jews had only those rights which made the Bavarian government and its majority Christian society comfortable. Jews had slowly made some civil gains during the Napoleonic era; the right to attend schools in 1804, and the right to bear arms in 1805, for example. But these gains revived fears that a socially integrated and prosperous Jewish population would be harmful to Christian life and business. As the number of Jews in Bavaria increased during the first decade of the nineteenth century following the incorporation of the Franconian provinces, Emperor Maximilian I issued an 1813 edict, the Judenedikt or Jew Decree, which sought to restructure Jewish civil and economic rights and privileges in such a way as to integrate Jews into the Bavarian population economically while also putting pressure on them to integrate socially and religiously as well.[3]

Peddling and livestock trading were the two most common and two of the only occupational opportunities available to Jews before the 1813 Judenedikt went into effect. Trading in cattle was a traditional and typical occupation for rural Jews such as Jacob Strauss and Seligman Haas, Löb Strauss’s grandfathers.Peddling was an older and even stronger tradition. Peddlers served as Bavaria’s local and international mercantile connection, much in the same way that livestock traders did. They also served as creditors to free-holding landed peasantry and small craftsmen. With no railroads to link small towns and major cities, peddlers were a vital cog in the wheel of Bavarian commerce.[4]

The 1813 edict, on the one hand, greatly improved the Jew’s economic situation. After centuries of debarment, they were given access to all occupations, even skilled crafts and agricultural production, and were allowed to buy real estate. These significant improvements came at a considerable price which, in fact, offset the economic gains. In order to obtain citizenship, Jews had to register with local authorities, adopt a German surname, and swear loyalty to the state. Immigration of Jews into Bavaria was prohibited and residency restrictions, which capped the number of Jews in each community, were stipulated. Marriages had to be licensed by the authorities, which restricted the chances of setting up a family and in theory would gradually reduce the number of Jews in the kingdom. In order to pave the way into respectable occupations, so-called “undesirable and detrimental occupations” such as peddling and “haggling” were banned. However, men who were already engaged in peddling before 1813 and could not learn any other trade were allowed to continue. Others learned a new trade on paper, but in reality often practiced traditional occupations.[5]

The civil restrictions imposed on Jews by the Bavarian state certainly encouraged Jewish inhabitants to consider emigrating in search of social and religious tolerance during the decades that followed. Economic push factors, such as the suppression of peddling and the decline of rural craft production in favor of factory production, also played an important role in spurring migration. Natural crises, such as food shortages during the decade of the 1840s, the so-called “Hungry Forties” provided further impetus for emigration from the region. In all, numerous forces played a part in encouraging Jews, such as Löb Strauss’ family, to consider leaving Bavaria for locations such as the United States.

Hirsch and Rebekka Strauss seem to have had a comfortable life in Buttenheim, but all this changed in June of 1846 when Hirsch died, probably from tuberculosis. With two small children of her own, as well as youngest stepdaughter Maila still at home, and living conditions in the region deteriorating due to the general crisis caused by bad harvests and the structural crisis affecting small rural crafts in the wake of industrialization, Rebecca Strauss eventually decided to emigrate to New York. Two of her stepsons, Jonathan and Lippmann, were now living in Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, working in the dry goods business. Rebecca and her three children arrived in New York between April and October of 1848, and probably moved in with Jonathan, now known as Jonas. By this time, Jonas’ brother Lippmann had changed his name to Louis.

The two brothers had formed a company named J. Strauss Brother & Co. The loss of nearly all of the corporate records of Levi Strauss & Co., as well as Levi Strauss’s personal records, in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 makes research on the family and the company’s early history difficult. In addition, the corporate records of J. Strauss Brother & Co. were not retained by the family members and descendants who remained in New York.

The business in Kleindeutschland was very likely door-to-door peddling, though there is some evidence that the Strauss family had some sort of wholesale distribution business. But records are scarce about the kind of firms which flourished in 1840s New York. Even the buildings where the Strauss family lived, which ranged from Fourteenth Street to Houston, to Thomas, to Cedar Streets, have all been swept away and replaced, sometimes more than once. The images of the Lower East Side which live in books and photographs, such as those published by Jacob Riis and other late nineteenth century reformers, date to a much later period of swelling immigration.

In the census of July 1850, the Strauss family consisted of Jonas and his wife and children, brother Louis, Löb, and his mother Rebecca. They lived on Division Street, near Jefferson, in the Seventh Ward. Vögele, soon called Fanny, was married and also living in New York. Jonas’s occupation was given as “Dry Goods,” but Louis and Löb were both described as “Pedlar, D.G.” (dry goods). In addition, young Löb had told the census taker that his name was “Levi,” thought it was written down as “Levy.”[6]  This indicates that he had already started to think about his new, American life. Making his name more pronounceable for Americans was an important part of this process, though it’s likely that he was still known at home as Löb. In 1851 young Levi declared his intention to become a United States citizen, and on his papers his named was spelled “Loeb.”

One of the many historical mysteries about the early life of Levi Strauss comes from a single mention in one of his obituaries in 1902. The San Francisco Call newspaper stated that Levi had spent five years in Louisville, Kentucky, and other parts of the South in the “mercantile business” before relocating to California in 1853.[7] While the Louisville area was home to many Jewish merchants, and he might have spent time there as a peddler, Levi could not have been in Louisville for a full five years. His appearance in the New York census, and his absence from Kentucky records, makes this highly unlikely. However the Call’s tale has spawned some urban myths about Levi’s life as a Kentucky peddler.

As the Strauss brothers were building their business and Levi was learning the trade, news began to trickle in from far away California: a gold rush was on. Stories about the opportunities awaiting intrepid entrepreneurs probably made their way into the family home. A reporter writing in the New York Times stated that the “febrile symptoms” of the California Gold Rush were not a passing fad. “Here, then, is a limitless opening for industry and talent,” he wrote.[8] While the Strauss family probably did not read this newspaper, similar articles ran in the Yiddish language papers which circulated in Kleindeutschland. In any case, the family became convinced of the great opportunities that California had to offer and decided to start up a San Francisco branch of the business, probably near the end of 1852. As the youngest and unmarried sibling, Levi was the logical choice to make the long, difficult journey out to California.

On January 31, 1853, in a chilly New York courtroom, “Loeb” Strauss renounced all allegiance to the King of Bavaria and became an American citizen. Less than a week later, he boarded the S.S. United States at the port of New York and headed for the Isthmus of Panama. Crossing the isthmus was the shortest, though by no means the safest, way to get to San Francisco. After landing in Aspinwall, on the Atlantic side, young Levi — as he would be known upon his arrival in California — boarded a train, which, in 1853, only ran about halfway across Panama since the line was not yet complete. He then took a boat up the Chagres River to the town of Gorgona, where he spent the night, and then either walked or took a very expensive mule ride the final eighteen miles to Panama City, on the Pacific side. This trip also included exposure to disease, mosquitoes, bad water, bad air, and bandits. On February 19 he boarded a steamship and landed in San Francisco on either March 5 or 6 and was soon in business under the name “Levi Strauss.”

Business Development

In the fall of 1852, the Strauss brothers arranged for cargoes of dry goods to be loaded onto two clipper ships, which rounded the Horn and arrived in San Francisco on March 30 and May 7, respectively. How Levi spent the time between his arrival in San Francisco at the beginning of March 1853 and the arrival of the first portion of his cargo at the end of the month is unknown, but it is very likely he arranged for warehouse space on the waterfront for the cargo, in addition to some bachelor living quarters for himself.

San Francisco in 1853 was small compared to the vast and crowded streets of New York, but it had been even smaller before the Gold Rush made this port city the teeming hub of a new and vibrant western economy. What had been a haphazard scattering of tents was now a true city, with businesses ranging from restaurants, foundries, bakeries, hotels, bath houses and banks, in buildings made of wood and brick, supporting a thriving population of fifty-thousand residents. Cobblestones, asphalt, or wooden planks now covered the unpaved streets in the bustling downtown.     

As Levi took in his new surroundings, he found a few things that were familiar. The Jewish community of San Francisco was well-established, and Levi was able to attend Temple Emanu-El for services and join in other cultural activities around the city. This would also have benefited him in his business, as social connections fostered commercial success, and this extended to merchants outside of San Francisco, as well.

Another persistent myth about Levi Strauss’s early business activities is that he went into the Gold Rush country of California as a peddler. This, like the Kentucky story, will probably never be substantiated, but there might be a grain of truth to the tale. In order to get business, Levi needed to become a “jobber” in order to find upcountry stores to carry the dry goods his brothers had begun to send him from New York. It’s very possible that, armed with letters of introduction and product samples, he visited well-established Jewish businesses in places such as Placerville, Sonora, Marysville, Nevada City, Auburn, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill, and other towns. If so, he probably brought letters of introduction from the New York relatives or business associates of these merchants. This would have paved the way for Levi to get customers in an area vital to the new Gold Rush economy.

Within a decade after his arrival in San Francisco, Levi had secured customers in California, Oregon, Nevada, and even Victoria, British Columbia. He was listed in the mercantile-friendly Daily Alta California newspaper as a “Consignee” for shipments of dry goods from New York, and between 1853 and 1863 he received anywhere from one to ten shiploads of dry goods per year. The individual items were not generally listed in the columns of Consignees. These were often just referred to as cases of “merchandise,” or “dry goods.” Based on the surviving invoices from early LS&CO customers, dry goods included items such as boots, hats, stockings, pants, shirts, bedding, fabrics, and other “soft” or household goods.

It is not known how or where Jonas and Louis Strauss obtained the large volume of merchandise that they shipped to Levi. They might have operated a manufacturing facility themselves in New York, or contracted with other houses to purchase their goods for shipment to Levi for eventual sale to the small stores of the Pacific coast, and later all of the western states and territories.

In essence, Levi was the west coast representative of J. Strauss Brother & Co. As such, he regularly shipped “treasure” back to his brothers in New York, which meant gold bars or gold coin. By the early years of the Civil War, he had sent over four million dollars back East, the equivalent of over $72 million dollars in today’s currency.[9]

Levi’s extraordinary success was likely due in great part to the fact that his brothers had an established business in New York, and were able to send the dry goods to Levi that his western customers wanted. He had a financial infrastructure back in New York that probably supported him in the early lean years, and allowed him the flexibility to seek out new retail clients.

The family profits did not always end up in New York, however. In August of 1857 Levi sent over $75,000 in treasure to Panama on the steamship Sonora. After arriving in Panama City, the gold was transported on the Panama Railroad to the Atlantic side of the isthmus. The ship’s passengers, mail, and treasure were then loaded onto the ship Central America, which headed up the east coast for New York. On September 12, the ship went down in a hurricane off Charleston, losing many passengers and all of the treasure. The company probably tried to recover some of the losses through insurance claims.

By 1856 half-brother Louis Strauss had joined Levi in the business, though he often traveled back and forth between California and New York. In addition, Levi’s sister, Fanny, her husband, David Stern, and their first child, Jacob, had relocated from New York to San Francisco by 1856 or 1857, and Levi’s mother, Rebecca, had also moved to San Francisco, though the year of her relocation is uncertain. The New York City directories of 1856 through 1859 only show Louis (sometimes spelled Lewis) as a member of the firm living in San Francisco. Levi first appears in the directories in 1859, but only as a “clothier” or engaged in “dry goods,” and associated with Jonas and Louis Strauss. Early printed invoices from the business state that the firm’s San Francisco name was “Levi Strauss.” By 1863 the firm had become known as “Levi Strauss & Co.,” no doubt reflecting the partnership with Levi’s half-brother and brother-in-law.

The company’s headquarters wandered around the San Francisco waterfront during its first few years, but by 1867 Levi Strauss & Co. had moved into a large warehouse and office facility at the corner of Pine and Battery Streets, in the heart of the city’s financial district. The firm’s commercial reach along the Pacific Rim continued to expand. By the early 1870s Levi’s retail customers now included stores in Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Hawaii, Japan, and Mexico.

Levi was an early member of the Merchant’s Exchange, owned stock in a Nevada mine, and held property throughout San Francisco in the post-Civil War years. He had taken part in pro-Union activities during the war, had voted for Abraham Lincoln, and had become involved in local politics. He had become one of the most well-known merchants in San Francisco, as well as beyond the city’s borders. Levi’s reputation for honesty and fair dealing with merchants throughout the West brought great dividends. Distant merchants even sent his firm additional money with their payments so that Levi Strauss & Co. representatives could pay these merchants’ bills to other suppliers within the city.

At some point during 1872, Levi received a letter with a business proposal from a man who had just started to purchase fabric from Levi Strauss & Co. Jacob Davis, an immigrant from Latvia, was living in Reno with his family and making his living as a tailor. After spending time in Canada and other parts of the West following his arrival in the United States in 1854, Davis had settled in the Nevada railroad town in 1868.

In late 1870 the wife of a local laborer came into Davis’ Reno shop and asked him to make a pair of cheap pants for her rather large husband, who went through his pants too quickly. She paid him $3.00 in advance for some trousers made of white “duck” fabric, a sturdy, plain weave used for work pants. This was nearly an entire day’s pay for a typical miner. She asked Davis to do something to make the pants last longer than usual.

Davis had some metal rivets in his shop, which he used to attach straps to the horse blankets he made for local teamsters, and he thought these could serve the same function in a pair of pants. He sewed up the trousers, placing the rivets at the “points of strain” (pocket corners and the base of the fly) and in January 1871 handed them to his customer. She and her husband were thrilled, and word began to spread about Davis’s sturdy work trousers.

Within eighteen months Davis had made and sold two-hundred pairs of the riveted pants, and his design was beginning to be imitated by other tailors. By 1872 he was routinely using rivets on the cotton duck pants he made. His riveted pants were still selling for $3.00 a pair — a premium price.[10]

Davis wanted to patent, mass-manufacture, and market his new style of work trousers, but needed some financial backing. Due to the loss of the company’s records in 1906, it is not known how Davis approached Levi Strauss, how he convinced him of the potential for his idea, or what their financial arrangement was. However, after the United States Patent and Trademark Office denied the application initially, Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis were eventually awarded patent number 139,121 on May 20, 1873, for “An Improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings.” It was the invention of what today is called the blue jean.[11]

Levi arranged for Davis and his family to relocate to San Francisco. According to oral tradition, he put Davis in charge of manufacturing the new pants, while he remained the head of the dry goods side of the firm. Small-scale production probably began in either leased facilities or in the homes of experienced seamstresses, but by the 1880s a small factory had been established in the South of Market industrial area. The pants were sold to Levi’s existing retail customers throughout the West, though it is unknown whether they were also sold to his Pacific Rim customers.

“Waist overalls” or “overalls” were the traditional names for this style of work pant, worn by laborers of every stripe: miners, cowboys, ranchers, carpenters, and lumberjacks. They were so called because in many cases the pants were purchased oversized and worn over the clothing as a type of protective work gear. But soon the riveted denim pants were being worn as regular trousers, though they were not known as “jeans” until the Baby Boomer generation turned them into a cult object from the 1950s onwards.

Work trousers were also traditionally made out of denim, as well as duck. Levi Strauss & Co.’s new riveted products were too, and dubbed “XX,” which was the designation of the denim used in their manufacture. Woven at the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. in Manchester, New Hampshire, it was considered the finest denim in the United States. With no textile mills to speak of in California, Levi had to look farther afield for a source of denim, and there is some evidence that he was already purchasing fabric from Amoskeag prior to receiving the patent. The fabric was either sent by rail or ship to the wholesale warehouse or, later on, to its factory.           

The financial panic of 1873, in which banks, railroads, and business failed at a terrifying rate, began a few months after the blue jeans patent was granted. It is unknown how this affected the first few years of this new business, but Levi Strauss & Co. did continue to receive regular shipments of dry goods from the brothers in New York. Most historians agree that the effects of the panic were not as severe in the West. Levi Strauss & Co.’s business was not only robust, but also provided consumers with the supplies for everyday living, which were always needed.

Because the company was allowed to benefit from the new patent for seventeen years (after which it would go into the public domain), there were no worries about dealing with competition between 1873 and 1890. Levi likely knew, however, that when the patent became available to other companies, they would make their own versions of the riveted work pants. To counter this, those in charge of advertising and marketing began a systematic process of brand building by creating imagery designed to link the Levi Strauss name to the innovative, new product. Flyers were given to salesmen to distribute to the stores in their sales territories. Colorful and sometimes humorous, these flyers contained both images and language describing the strength and longevity of the new riveted denim pants. In 1886 the famous Two Horse logo was created and stamped onto the leather patch which adorned the back of the waistband. The patch had always been there, but prior to 1886 had only featured the company’s name, address, language about the “Patent Riveted” clothing and the waist and length measurements. The Two Horse design was also registered as a trademark, very likely as a pre-emptive strike against the competitors that would arise once the patent went into the public domain. It was the first of the company’s trademarks, and the most important. The jeans and other riveted clothing were called “The Two Horse Brand” in advertising and in catalogs until 1928. In that year, the name “Levi’s” was registered as a trademark because it was in danger of becoming the generic term for jeans.

The distinctive product imagery was not just for marketing purposes. It’s likely that Levi and his managers knew that many of the company’s potential customers did not speak English as their first language, and certainly there were also customers who were simply not literate. Pairing a symbol with the new product made good business sense. Levi Strauss & Co. also filed lawsuits against companies that jumped the gun and began to make riveted clothing before the patent expired and became available to other businesses. Between 1874 and 1876 the company sued A.B. Elfelt and B. Greenebaum of San Francisco, and Henry W. King & Company of Chicago, for patent infringement. The company won all three cases and in the Elfelt suit was awarded $2,000 in damages (the equivalent of about $40,000 in 2010$).

Levi wasn’t just tough against infringers. He also had a great deal of personal courage. On March 12, 1885, an article ran in the Daily Alta California newspaper in San Francisco about a Calaveras County, California, storekeeper named Antonio Gagliardo, who was arrested on March 11, charged with “felony in sending threatening letters to Levi Strauss, the well-known merchant of this city.” Gagliardo, who was one of Levi’s retail customers, had apparently gone out of business, fled to Los Angeles, and then had written to Levi, asking him to “use his influence” to help him obtain a clerical job. Levi sent him $50 instead, which apparently enraged Gagliardo. He wrote Levi again, and told him that he had ten days to help him get a job or he would “blow his (Levi’s) head off.” Levi’s Italian acquaintances, many of whom knew Gagliardo, told him to have the man arrested, but Levi said he was simply “overexcited by his troubles.” However, when he learned that Gagliardo had made his way to San Francisco he was persuaded to tell the San Francisco chief of police, who picked the man up and jailed him. The case was thrown out of the police court at the beginning of April because Levi refused to pursue the case on the grounds that the defendant “…promised to refrain from carrying his sanguinary promises into execution.” Gagliardo left the city and never threatened Strauss again.

By the 1880s Levi Strauss & Co. was also making riveted denim jackets and coats, “jumpers,” which were a type of heavy overshirt, and a line of work shirts. In 1890, when the blue jean patent expired, the XX waist overalls, as well as other riveted products, were given three-digit “lot” or ordering numbers, to help retail customers place orders for the products they wanted. The XX was now called by the number “501,” though the men who wore them still called them XX, or, by the early twentieth century, either “Two Horse” or “Levi’s” overalls. Also in 1890 the company unveiled a less expensive version of the classic waist overall and gave it a lot number of 201. Its cheaper buttons and label (linen instead of leather) gave it a lower price point than the top-of-the-line XX or 501 overall. Bib or engineer’s overalls were also part of the company’s product offerings, but these were dropped by the 1920s.

Within a few years of the patent’s expiration, other companies started producing riveted clothing, releasing their products under brand names such as Stronghold, Boss of the Road, Can’t Bust ‘Em, and Non-Pareil. How this affected Levi Strauss & Co.’s business is impossible to tell due to a lack of records prior to 1906, but none of these other brands survived past the mid-twentieth century, except for their revival by other companies as premium denim became more popular in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Levi Strauss understood that laboring men were the customers for the new trousers, but at the same time, he recognized that the buyers of dry goods, which included women, often wanted finer clothing, domestics, and personal items. By the 1880s the early dry goods inventory of boots, work pants, and simple shirts was complemented by silk and satin fabrics, women’s kid gloves, linen coats, hat pins, shawls, sewing pins, and many other feminine items. Sometime during the latter part of the decade company letterhead began including an address in Paris, which might have been a business contact who purchased and shipped goods from Europe for eventual transport to San Francisco and Levi’s retail customers

Levi knew that association with other merchants in San Francisco and the Bay Area was one of the keys to success. Belonging to trade organizations was a vital part of the life of any merchant, as these organizations had commercial influence on the state and national level. He joined the San Francisco Board of Trade in 1877, began to serve on committees of the Merchants Protective Association in 1879 and was elected a Trustee of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in 1882. In 1893 Levi attended the Trans Mississippi Commercial Congress meeting in Ogden, Utah. This group was devoted to furthering the commercial interests of western businesses and met yearly well into the twentieth century. Levi took every opportunity to boost or fund activities which would showcase San Francisco or California as a place to do business. In 1889 he and other merchants signed a petition to the governor requesting that the Legislature appropriate $250,000 to create an exhibit of California products at an international trade exposition in London. In the same year Levi was elected to the State Board of Trade. In 1890 the company’s products were exhibited at the California State Fair, with the display of overalls winning a silver medal.

Levi expanded his business beyond the small retailers of the West, always looking for new opportunities. One lucrative area was government contracts to supply dry goods to the prison system. Between 1884 and 1901 Levi Strauss & Co. was awarded the contract to supply dry goods, clothing, and bedding to the San Quentin and Folsom prisons in California, and the Arizona Territorial prison at Yuma. In 1898 Levi Strauss & Co. sold striped cassimere (a twill fabric made of wool) to Folsom Prison for “convict suits.”  

Louis Strauss died in San Francisco in 1881, and Jonas Strauss, the oldest of the brothers, died in New York in 1885. This spelled the end of J. Strauss Brother & Co., which had only existed on paper for the previous few years. Levi Strauss & Co. had far exceeded the income and growth of the original family firm, and Levi was now the patriarch of the family.

On December 16, 1890, Levi Strauss & Co. was officially incorporated in the state of California, and the first stockholders meeting was held on December 20. Levi Strauss was elected chairman of the meeting, and shares were apportioned equally among Levi and his four nephews, Jacob, Sigmund, Louis and Abraham Stern, the sons of his sister Fanny and her husband David Stern. The purpose of the new corporation was to “continue the business” which had been established in 1853, and to “…manufacture, purchase, sell and deal in all kinds of Merchandise and Materials, to purchase, acquire, sell, lease and hire such lands, Mills, factories, warehouses, shops, stores and Buildings as may be requisite, Convenient or useful in Establishing or carrying on the business of the Corporation….” At the meeting of January 6, 1891, Jacob Stern was named first vice president, Sigmund Stern named second vice president, and Louis Stern named treasurer. Levi had already been elected president and Abraham Stern appointed secretary. All the officers were now in place, and meetings were held quarterly per the articles of incorporation, in addition to special meetings which were called as needed.

Strikes by the sewing machine operators at the Levi Strauss & Co. factory in 1890 and 1894 were settled by compromises which pleased both labor and management. Levi was still at the helm of his business, and as the twentieth century drew near, he continued to participate in activities which kept San Francisco in the public eye, and its merchants in the black. In 1899 he was on the executive committee of the Manufacturers’ and Wholesalers’ League, charged with finding ways to compete with eastern companies who did business in San Francisco. The following year he arranged to have elevators installed at the headquarters on Battery Street, and also oversaw the negotiations to open a sewing line in a factory across the bay in Oakland.

Interviewed in 1895 by a reporter for theSan Francisco Bulletin Levi summed up his almost half-century of business life by saying, “I’ve been in the harness now for forty-three years, and I could not live without my daily duties… I don’t believe that a man who once forms the habit of being busy can retire and be contented.”[12]

Social Status, Networks and Public Life

Levi Strauss never married, which was unusual for the era, though not unheard of. After living on his own since his arrival in San Francisco, he moved in with his sister Fanny, her husband David, and their growing family in 1866, when he was thirty-seven years old. David Stern died in 1874 and the following year Fanny married William Sahlein, the widower of her half-sister Mary. By 1876 Levi and the Stern/Sahlein family lived in a larger home further west on Leavenworth Street, near Geary, a fashionable address at the time (today this part of San Francisco is known as the Tenderloin). Fanny died in 1884.

It’s difficult to know the extent of Levi’s religious life. However, he was a member of Temple Emanu-El, and was on the Advisory Board of the Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service. Founded in 1894 by Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger and Bella Seligman Lilienthal, this organization assisted Jewish immigrants — mostly the working poor — as they learned to live in a strange, new city. The Sisterhood ran a kindergarten, and gave classes for women to teach sewing and housekeeping. Levi was an advisor from the first year of the Sisterhood’s existence until the year of his death in 1902. His will contained a bequest to the Sisterhood in the amount of $2,500.

Philanthropy had been a quiet part of his Levi Strauss’ life since his arrival in San Francisco. A closer look at the institutions that Levi supported during in his lifetime, as well as those which received large sums under his will, reveals that what he cared most about was the welfare of children and young people. In 1854, a year after he established his business, Levi donated $5.00 to the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of San Francisco, which still exists today as the Edgewood Center for Children and Families. Over the ensuing decades Strauss himself, or his corporation, contributed money to an eclectic variety of causes. In 1871 the company sent $100 to the relief fund for the victims of the great Chicago fire (equivalent to over $1,500 in 2010$). In 1890 Levi was elected to serve on a committee which raised money to put unemployed men to work around San Francisco. In 1887 Levi was elected a vice president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, an organization to whom he gave his time and his name for the rest of his life.

By 1890, the manufacturing side of the business was perfected, the four Stern brothers were actively involved with the firm, and Levi Strauss & Co. had been incorporated. This allowed Levi to devote more time to philanthropic activities. In the year he died, 1902, he attended an entertainment event to raise money for the Buford Free Kindergarten, a school for poor children, which his nephew Jacob Stern also supported. One of Levi’s most generous acts took place in 1897. He heard that the California State Legislature gave money for scholarships to the University of California at Berkeley for students from each of the seven Congressional districts. Levi wrote to the university and offered to match these funds in the amount of $3,500 (nearly $95,000 today), a gesture which was immediately accepted and given the name “Levi Strauss Scholarship.” The first twenty-one recipients of the scholarship — half of whom were women — surprised Levi at home in March of 1898 to thank him in person and present him with a plaque. The Levi Strauss Scholarship is still in place today.

As the 1890s progressed, Levi became more involved in local politics. He served on committees with other prominent men to help further the cause of San Francisco’s commercial progress. In 1895, for example, he gave $25,000 to help fund the construction of the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railway, meant to compete head to head with the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad. Though the company got off to a good start and portions of the rail line were built, it never lived up to its funders’ expectations and was eventually sold.

Levi had strong patriotic feelings which he tied to his business, as well as his personal life. On February 21, 1891, his company (along with others) closed down to commemorate the funeral of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. He had probably met Sherman when he was a San Francisco banker in the 1850s.

Levi Strauss was also on the committee planning a reception for the visit of President Benjamin Harrison in May of 1891, and attended the presidential banquet. A few months later Levi Strauss & Co. was a signatory to a telegram sent by local merchants to President Harrison requesting naval contracts for San Francisco. In 1895 Levi gave $500 (nearly $15,000 today) to a fund created to bring the 1896 Republican National Convention to San Francisco. It was held in St. Louis instead, nominating William McKinley for the presidency. And in 1901 Levi donated another $500 to help erect a monument to honor the victory of Admiral Dewey over the Spanish in Manila Bay in 1898. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the monument in 1903, and it still stands in San Francisco’s Union Square.     

Strauss’ circle included men such as Leland Stanford, the railroad magnate, former senator and California governor;Claus and John D. Spreckels, sugar millionaires; James Phelan, San Francisco mayor; Lloyd Tevis, attorney, financier, and president of Wells, Fargo & Co.; and James G. Fair and James Flood, who made millions from the 1870s Big Bonanza on Nevada’s silver Comstock lode. These influential men were sought out for their opinions, which were regularly published in San Francisco’s newspapers, and Levi Strauss was often among them. He was quoted over the years on topics ranging from a new jail for the city, to a host of other civic improvements. On March 30, 1887, a reporter for the Daily Alta California newspaper interviewed him about San Francisco’s future and what should be accomplished to improve the city. He said, “I am in favor of everything that can benefit San Francisco. Fix up the streets, overhaul the sewers, overhaul the Park as fast as possible, and in every way make the city attractive. There is no reason why it should not be the handsomest city on the continent, for we have the climate and the natural advantages of an exceptional situation.”[13]

A few months before he died, Levi spent time at the Hotel Del Monte, a luxury hotel near Monterey favored by the wealthy of the Bay Area. He was still living in the house on Leavenworth Street, now owned by his nephew Jacob Stern and filled with Stern’s wife and children. Levi attended the retirement parties and funerals of his fellow merchants and those with whom he served on corporate boards, and enjoyed being a beloved “Uncle Levi” to his many nieces and nephews.

Levi died peacefully on September 26, 1902, at the age of seventy-three. The funeral was held on September 29, with services led in the Leavenworth Street home by Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El. Family members were joined by the merchants who had worked with Levi over the previous decade, as well as members of the Board of Trade and nearly one hundred employees and former employees. The police department kept order outside until Levi’s casket was transported to the local train station, where seven specially-reserved cars took the mourners to Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, south of San Francisco.

Strauss’ will was filed on October 9. He left the business and the bulk of his estate to his four nephews, the Stern brothers, but gave thousands of dollars to his many nieces, the children of his sister Fanny, his half-brother Jonas, and his half-sister Mary. He also bequeathed large sums to local orphanages and Jewish charities, as well as generous bequests to longtime employees of the firm. Levi had also shown support for the city’s fire department over the years, and had often voiced concerns about the city’s readiness to face potentially catastrophic fires. When Levi’s will was filed, San Francisco Fire Chief Dennis T. Sullivan was surprised and touched to learn that Levi had left $500 (worth over $12,000 today) to the Fireman’s Mutual Aid Society.

The minutes of the Board of Directors meeting held on October 17, 1902, have only a brief mention of the company founder’s passing. They state that all directors were present, except for Louis Stern, who was attending to the business of the corporation in New York, and “Levi Strauss, who died since the last meeting of this Board and whose place as Director has not yet been filled.”

Conclusion

The Stern brothers, well-versed in running Levi Strauss & Co., kept the firm humming without cease after their uncle’s death. Four years later, Levi’s concerns about San Francisco’s fire readiness were confirmed, when the city’s financial and industrial centers were wiped out in the fires which swept the city after the earthquake of April 18, 1906. The disaster also took the life of Chief Dennis Sullivan, the only one who knew about water supplies, logistics, and the best firefighting techniques.

The headquarters, factory, and warehouses of Levi Strauss & Co., as well as the home of Jacob Stern, were all lost in the disaster. Jacob, Sigmund, Abraham and Louis Stern wasted no time, however, in getting the company back up and running again, and before the year was out a new factory was in operation, and the bones of a new headquarters building put in place.

Today the company’s world headquarters is just ten blocks from the site of the destroyed and then rebuilt head office. Levi Strauss & Co. is owned by the Haas family, descendants of Levi’s sister Fanny Stern, and themselves descendants of Bavarian immigrants. Successive generations of family members, employees, and managers have kept up the company’s traditions of innovation in clothing design, and leadership in issues of corporate social responsibility.

Levi Strauss traveled to the American West in the mid-nineteenth century to make a new life out of familiar cloth. Representing his family’s eastern dry goods business in the raw-edged city of San Francisco, Levi found deep ties to his own Jewish culture among mercantile acquaintances and rivals. Many of his fellow merchants were themselves immigrants, with names like Gerstle, Haas, Meyer, Neustadter, Heller, and Hellman, and their commitment to business success was coupled with an openness to new ideas. Levi personified this new sensibility and the result was a firm which now celebrates 160 years in business, and the global phenomenon that is the blue jean.

Notes

[1] Interview with Hannah Wilson, Saddleman’s Review, January 15, 1960.

[2] All genealogical references are from documents in the Bavarian State Archives, sourced and translated by Tanja Roppelt, the director of the Levi Strauss Museum in Buttenheim, Germany.

[3] For the full text of the edict in English, see Eric G. Yondorf, trans., “The ‘Edict of June 10, 1813 Regarding the Status of Persons of Jewish Faith in the Kingdom of Bavaria,’” Rijo-Research.de (accessed April 17, 2013).

[4] James F. Harris, The People Speak! Anti-Semitism and Emancipation in Nineteenth- Century Bavaria (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 17-18.

[5] Ibid, 25.

[6] Bureau of the Census; Seventh Census of the United States (1850).

[7] “Levi Strauss, Merchant and Philanthropist, Dies Peacefully At His Home.” The San Francisco Call, September 28, 1902.

[8] “The Movement Toward California,” New York Times, February 19, 1852.

[9] All monetary conversions to 2010 dollars have been done using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The conversion provides a rough approximation of current values for historical monetary sums based on the changing costs of household purchases including food, housing, medical care, and so forth. Conversion calculations were conducted via MeasuringWorth.

[10] Levi Strauss v. A.B. Elfelt, affidavit of Jacob Davis, District of California Circuit Court of the United States Ninth Judicial Circuit, June 17. 1874.

[11] U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, patent 139,121 (May 20, 1873).

[12] C.M. [Cora] Older, “Does Wealth Bring Happiness?” San Francisco Bulletin, October 12, 1895.

[13] “Our City’s Needs” Alta Daily Californian, March 30, 1887, 1.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Levi Strauss." (2017) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved April 25, 2017, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=19

Chicago Style

Downey, Lynn. "Levi Strauss." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute. Last modified February 18, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=19

MLA Style

"Levi Strauss," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2017, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 25 Apr 2017 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=19>

Levi Strauss, ca. 1890

  • Bird's Eye Map of San Francisco, ca. 1864
  • Peddler's wagon
  • Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters on Battery Street, 1880s
  • Levi Strauss' birth home

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