When news of the California Gold Rush reached Loeb "Levi" Strauss he wisely deduced that a fortune could be made by expanding his family dry good business, selling to cash-rich, merchandise-starved miners.  In 1853, at age 24, Levi opened up his first waterfront store at 90 Sacramento Street, San Francisco. Business flourished.  Commonly repeated stories about young Strauss fashioning durable pants for miners out of overstocked canvas are probably based on myth.
According to a press release, written by historian Lynn Downey on the Levi Strauss Company web page, the real story is quite simple. One of Strauss's customers was a Reno, Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis. Among Jacob's customers was a prospector named Alkali Ike who kept ripping the pockets of his pants, presumably from stuffing them with heavy gold nuggets. To strengthen his customer's trousers, Jacob utilized tough cotton twill and put metal rivets at points of strain: pocket corners, the crotch, etc.

The pants proved so exemplary, Jacob decided to take out a patent on the process.  However, he had trouble scraping together the $68 he needed to file the papers.  Jacob wrote to Levi to suggest that the two men hold the patent together. Levi, being an astute businessman, saw the potential for this new product, and agreed to the proposal. The two men received a patent on May 20, 1873. Within a very short time, all types of working men were buying up the innovative new clothing, and spreading the word.

Today's lesson is don't throw away that old pair of jeans in your attic. Beginning in the 1970's historic and popular interest gained considerable ground on artist merit concerning antiques. Today, a well-preserved, properly marketed 19th century pair of Levi's might fetch $50,000-$100,000.  A 1940's Lee "Cowboy" brand denim jacket will bring approximately $6,000. A Levi jacket of the same period will fetch $5,000. A pair of never-washed 1930's Levi jeans complete with a "buckleback" is worth around $2,000.  A mint pair of vintage "Blue Bell" Wranglers made late as the 1960's is worth around $100.

If you think these prices seem crazy, keep in mind that people buy what they like, and worldwide people covet articles closely associated with America and her cowboys. Toward getting lucky at your next church bazaar, here's a brief chronology on the subject helpful in dating old jeans.

1873: Featuring three pockets, no belt loops-only suspender buttons and a waist-cinching buckle on the back, dark blue stiff loose-fitting riveted denim "waist overalls" are introduced in California selling for 22 cents each.

1886: To the rear of the "501" waistband Strauss adds a leather (or oilcloth) rear patch featuring a company publicity stunt of "two hitched horses" unable to pull his waist overalls apart.

1890: A small forth pocket above the front pocket is added to accommodate coins and pocket watches.

1902: Levis Strauss dies, leaving business to nephews.

1905: A fifth "wallet" pocket is added.

1906: Earthquake and fire destroys Levis Strauss headquarters and manufacturing centers. A new factory is quickly constructed.

1913: Kansas entrepreneur, H.D. Lee (Founder of Lee Jeans) introduces a one-piece work-wear garment called the Union-All.

1922: Belt loops added, eventually replacing suspender buttons.

1924: 13 ounce denim Lee Rider jeans are introduced. Levi's were 10 oz. at time

1926: The zipper is introduced to blue jeans by Lee.

1936: Red LEVI'S tab added to back pocket.

1930's: Blue Bell Globe (ancestor of Wrangler) emerges from depression as major blue jeans manufacturer. Singing cowboys glamorize denim image.

1940's: War rationing reduces production. Heat conducting crotch rivets are removed after Levi CEO Walter Haas suffers embarrassing campfire burn.  Exposed rear pocket rivets are covered with fabric layer after numerous complaints from cowboys of scared saddles and teachers from scratched school chairs.

1950's: Stars like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando endorse jeans image.

Mid-60's: Bell bottoms introduced.

1971: Levis replaces capital "E" with little "e" on their red tab.

70's & 80's: Blue jeans black-market and collecting markets emerge worldwide, especially strong in Japan.

1990's:  Huge oversized jeans rise and fall in fashion. New industry leaders emerge.

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Wayne Mattox Antiques | 82 Main Street North | Woodbury, CT 06798 | 203-263-2899 | wayne@antiquetalk.com
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