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What TIME Got Wrong About the Invention of Blue Jeans

3 minute read

As origin stories go, TIME’s account of how Levi Strauss came up with the idea for his trademark denim pants is hard to beat. Here’s how the magazine told it in a 1950 story on Levi Strauss & Co.’s 100th anniversary:

When 20-year-old Levi Strauss sailed from Manhattan round Cape Horn to San Francisco in 1850 to seek a fortune in the gold fields, he carried a roll of canvas in his baggage. He intended to sell it to a tentmaker to get enough cash for a grubstake. But when he got ashore, the complaint of a friendly miner gave him a better idea. “Pants don’t wear worth a hoot up in the diggins,” said the miner. “Can’t get a pair strong enough to last no time.”

Levi promptly went into the clothing business. He had a tailor cut a pair of trousers from his canvas roll, and soon the miner was strolling all over town, boasting how strong were these “pants of Levi’s.” With one satisfied customer, Strauss found he had a steady stream of men who wanted “Levis.” In a shop on San Francisco’s California Street, he began making dozens of pairs of the waist-high overalls which defied the wear & tear of bronc-riding, gold-mining and plain ordinary living.

Years later, the article continued, a miner known only as “Alkali” annoyed his tailor by regularly carrying rocks around that broke his pocket seams. The tailor got the idea to use rivets on the corners of the pockets for stabilization; those rivets were the source of the idea for Strauss’ signature rivets.

Alas, the real story doesn’t quite measure up. As the company tells it, Strauss went West to open a dry-goods store for gold miners; dry goods were the family business, established by his brothers before Levi even got to the United States. To be fair, he did sell cloth—but as a businessman, not an ingenious fortune-seeker. Furthermore, the crucial tailor tip-off about the rivets came from a customer of the San Francisco Levi Strauss & Co. store, who was looking for a business partner to back the idea. On this day, May 20, in 1873, Strauss and his partner, Jacob Davis, were given a patent for work pants strengthened with rivets—the first example of what we now know as blue jeans.

By 1950, per TIME’s count, Levi’s had made 95 million pairs. (The going rate in 1950 was $3.50 a pop.) As for Strauss, he died in 1902.

Read the full 1950 story, here in the TIME Vault: Iron Bottoms

Wish Your Blue Jeans a Happy 142nd Birthday

Peter Haas, President of Levi Strauss (seated) and former company president, his brother Walter (standing), next to cut-out of company founder, 1972.
Peter Haas, President of Levi Strauss (seated) and former company president, his brother Walter (standing), next to cut-out of company founder, 1972.Ralph Crane—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
LIFE Magazine, November 24, 1972.
Chopped-off blue jeans on the beach at St. Tropez; a car upholstered in Levi's denim; French pop singer Johnny Hallyday in a studded Wrangler shirt and jeans.LIFE Magazine
LIFE Magazine, November 24, 1972.
The American blue jean takes on Europe: 60,000 lbs. of denim headed for Europe from Brooklyn; residents of Moscow in denim; Levi's at a Paris flea market; Parisian strippers in Levi's.LIFE Magazine
LIFE Magazine, November 24, 1972.
A life-size cutout of his ancestor the founder at his side, Levi Strauss President Peter Haas sits in front of lined-up employees at the oldest Levi's factory, in San Francisco.LIFE Magazine

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com