The story Reno played in the life and times of Levi Strauss — the man and the company who made blue jeans famous — is both rich and riveting — literally.
The Bavaria-born Strauss was already an established and successful dry goods merchant in San Francisco when Reno tailor Jacob Davis, one of his customers, wrote him a letter that disclosed the unique way he made pants for his customers, using brass rivets at the stress points to help the pants last longer. Davis wanted to patent his new idea but needed a business partner. Levi Strauss agreed and on May 20, 1873, the patent was granted and blue jeans were born.
While Reno was key to Strauss’ life, it isn’t clear if he ever set foot in the city.
“Unfortunately, because the company lost all its records in the 1906 earthquake and fire, we don’t know if Levi ever visited Reno,” said Lynn Downey, author of the book “Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World.” “Once he and Jacob Davis began corresponding, I think they did everything by letter.”
The relationship between Strauss and Davis is just one of the historical tidbits Downey plans to discuss during a pair of appearances in Northern Nevada this month.
Downey is the featured author in the Nevada Historical Society’s monthly Writers’ Wednesday program on April 26 and she will be at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City the following night, April 27, as the featured speaker in the Frances Humphrey Lecture Series.
Few, if any, know the story of Levi Strauss better than Downey, who spent 24 years as the first in-house historian at Levi Strauss & Co., in San Francisco.
Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria on Feb. 26, 1829 to Hirsch and Rebecca Haas Strauss. He had three older brothers and three older sisters. Two years after his father succumbed to tuberculosis in 1846, Levi and his sisters immigrated to New York, where they were met by his two older brothers who owned a New York City-based wholesale dry goods business called “J. Strauss Brother & Co.” Levi soon began to learn the trade himself.
When news of the California Gold Rush made its way east, Levi journeyed to San Francisco in 1853 to make his fortune, though he wouldn’t make it panning gold. He established a wholesale dry goods business under his own name and served as the West Coast representative of the family’s New York firm. Levi eventually renamed his company “Levi Strauss & Co.”
Around 1872, Levi received a letter from Davis, the Reno tailor. In his letter, Davis disclosed the unique way he made pants. Levi was enthusiastic about the idea. The patent was granted to Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss & Company.
Downey’s Reno lecture for Writers’ Wednesdays starts at 5:30 p.m., on April 26 at the Nevada Historical Society, 1650 N. Virginia St. Admission is $5 for adults; free to NHS members. Seating is limited.
The Carson City lecture starts at 6:30 p.m. on April 27 at the South Gallery inside the Nevada State Museum, 600 N. Carson St. Admission is $8, free to members and children 17 and younger.