Nevada's connection to Levi's examined

Pity poor Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno who was forced to take on a partner because he didn't have $68 to patent his invention of attaching rivets to pockets of overalls.

Now, millions of people walk around in blue jeans known by his partner's first name - Levi.

"He (Davis) should be famous, but he isn't," said Lynn Downey, historian for Levi Strauss & Co. "If he could have afforded the patent, maybe we would be wearing Jacob's."

Downey was invited by the state Department of Cultural Affairs to discuss Nevada's connection to Levi's at a recent reception in the Governor's Mansion. She spoke on the 131st anniversary of the day in May 1873 that Davis and Levi Strauss secured their patent.

Downey brought along several artifacts, including a pair of jeans from the 1880s that Levi Strauss & Co. bought on an eBay auction three years ago for $46,532.

Latvian-born Davis came up with the idea of using copper rivets on pants pockets after a woman came into his tailor shop to complain that her husband kept ripping his pants. It occurred to him that pockets might stay longer on the pants if he attached rivets.

John Marshall, a retired University of Nevada, Reno history professor, said after Strauss and Davis secured their patent, they fought court battles to keep it. Strauss paid the legal costs, so he apparently got first crack at the name. Davis went to work for Strauss, supervising his factory, and did well financially.

Over the years, Levi's has sold 3.5 billion pairs of jeans, most of them in the past 50 years.

"It's the most American of garments," Downey said. "It is the garment that represents the United States to the rest of the world."

Jan Loverin, curator of clothing for the Nevada State Museum, said Levi's can thank American teenagers and their idolization of actors for making it a household word. "They certainly were a standard staple product, but they were work clothing," she said. "Then James Dean came along, and suddenly they were everyone's garment."


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