Happy Birthday, Blue Jeans!

One hundred fifty years ago today – May 20, 1873 — denim pants got a makeover and became blue jeans.

On that date, San Francisco dry goods merchant and philanthropist Levi Strauss, and Reno, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis were granted patent number 139,121 for an “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings.” Davis had started making denim pants with metal rivets in the pocket corners to keep them from ripping. He realized he had invented a new kind of work pants, so he suggested to Levi that they take out a patent on the process together. Levi had the vision and the funding; Davis had the manufacturing skills. Within months they were making the copper riveted waist overalls that we know today as Levi’s 501 jeans.

I had many historical blue jean adventures in my twenty-five years as the Levi Strauss & Co. Historian. One of my favorites happened in 2006.

Reno Historical Resources Commission created a plaque commemorating the site of Jacob Davis’s tailoring shop. The group then organized a ceremony to install the plaque at the shop’s original Virginia Street location — on May 20, the patent anniversary date. They asked me to come to the event and to bring the oldest pair of 501 jeans in the company’s Archives. I told them I would be happy to, but they would have to provide security, because the jeans — from 1879 — were, well, priceless.

The commission had already hired someone to keep an on things, because they were going to display some historic Levi’s children’s overalls recently discovered on an old Nevada property. So, I felt all right about bringing the precious pair, and I stored it in a piece of vintage luggage called a train case, which had belonged to my grandmother.

I drove to Reno on a beautiful spring day and met with the commission members and other organizers. Also on hand was Frank Davis, a descendant of Jacob Davis and the CEO of the Ben Davis clothing company.

One of the event managers then took me to meet my personal security detail. Dressed in full 19th century gunfighter clothing, complete with badges and functioning vintage firearms, they introduced themselves to me as Wyatt and Morgan Earp.

I was thrilled, and knew that my jeans would be safe.

Their real names (left to right in the photo) are Andy Hughes and Michael Curcio. After the ceremony was over, they invited me to ride with them in their truck to the building where refreshments were being served. I sat between the two guys on the big bench seat, and we headed off.

There was a moment of silence after we got underway, and then Wyatt spoke to Morgan.

“You know, we could just steal those expensive jeans and leave her out in the desert to die.”

When I stopped laughing, I told them they were the most fun security guards I’d ever had.

Happy Birthday, Levi’s jeans. Thanks for the memories. And by the way, that’s a vintage Levi’s chambray shirt I’m wearing in the photo. I still wear it.

Photos courtesy Levi Strauss & Co. Archives and the Reno Historical Resources Commission.

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