Jeans are pants made from a material called “denim,” which was developed in the French town of Nîmes. In fact, denim gets its name from the town (“de Nîmes“).

During the Renaissance, denim pants were made in Italy and sold through the harbor of Genoa. The Genoese Navy needed durable pants for its sailors, and denim worked well. The phrase “blue jeans” can be traced back to the French phrase “bleu de Gênes,” which means the “blue of Genoa.”

The blue denim work pants popular in Europe in the 1800s were not the same as modern American blue jeans, though. The development of what we now know as blue jeans was the work of two enterprising immigrants.

In California in the 1850s, a German dry goods merchant named Levi Strauss sold blue denim work pants to local workers. One of his customers, a Latvian tailor named Jacob Davis, regularly bought cloth from his Levi Strauss & Co. wholesale business.

When one of Davis’ customers complained repeatedly about his pants tearing, Davis developed an idea to use copper rivets to reinforce the pockets and seams of the pants. He wanted to patent his idea, but he did not have the $68 required to pursue the patent.

Eventually, Davis approached Strauss and suggested they go into business together. With Strauss’ financial backing, the men received U.S. Patent 139,121, “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings,” on May 20, 1873. Some consider that day to be the official “birthday” of blue jeans.

The riveted pants, which the men originally called “waist overalls,” were an instant hit with workers. Strauss hired Davis to oversee production of the riveted pants at the Levi Strauss & Co. San Francisco plant.

With their patent secure, Levi Strauss & Co. was the only company to make riveted clothing for nearly 20 years. When their patent expired, however, dozens of other manufacturers began to copy their clothing. By that time, the public routinely referred to blue jeans as “Levi’s,” a name the company eventually trademarked.

Although they were originally designed as work pants, blue jeans became a significant part of popular culture in the 1950s after James Dean wore them in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Their popularity continued to grow, and today they’re routinely worn as casual dress in the United States and many countries around the world.

The visionary immigrants who transformed denim and small pieces of metal into the most popular clothing product in the world probably never imagined how famous they would become. Indeed, no other clothing product has been identified more with American culture, especially the American West.

Interesting blue jean facts:

  • In Spain, blue jeans are known as vaqueros (“cowboys”) or tejanos (“Texans”).
  • Jeans are usually dyed to a blue color using indigo dye. Other colors of jeans, such as pink, yellow, black and white, can be created by dyeing other fabrics to resemble jeans.
  • Residents of North America own an average of seven pairs of blue jeans.
  • In 1885, jeans cost about $1.50 (approximately $37 today).

 

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  1. Hi, Wonderopolis! I found this information very interesting because even though blue jeans are so popular, no one really cares to find out who invented them! I think it is very interesting that in 1885, jeans only cost about $1.50. How did the price go up?

    • Hi, Jade! We’re glad you liked this Wonder about BLUE JEANS! Prices for many products go up over time, as the price for materials used to make them increases and the demand for the product increases. Here’s another Wonder about that might help explain some of the factors that make prices increase over time (it’s a SWEET Wonder, too). It’s past Wonder #303 – How Much Does Penny Candy Cost? Here’s a link: http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/how-much-does-penny-candy-cost/. Thanks for your comment today! :-)

    • Hi, Viviana! Thanks so much for visiting Wonderopolis today and for leaving us this comment! We wonder if it is less expensive for manufacturers to make skinny jeans, since there is less fabric involved to make them than to make regular jeans? What do you think? :-)

  2. Hi, Wonderopolis, I need your help. Why did it cost so little back then? I mean, over here, you can get two candy bars for that much. Please help me!

    • That’s a great question, Kristine! Jeans were much less expensive back then because it cost less to make them. Materials like denim and thread weren’t as expensive, plus the cost of labor was a lot less, too. Also, jeans have grown in popularity since they were first worn, and with demand (everyone wanting a pair or two) often comes price increases. Thanks so much for your comment! :-)

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Try It Out

If you’ve ever owned a favorite pair of blue jeans, you know that eventually… one day… all good things must come to an end. Yes, for some, it’s truly a sad day when they have to say goodbye to a favorite pair of jeans.

The next time you face the sad truth that your favorite jeans have outlived their usefulness, recycle them! There are many fun and interesting things you can do with an old pair of jeans.

Here are just a few ideas you might like to try:

 

Still Wondering

What size jeans do you wear? Visit Illuminations’ Sizing Up lesson plan to learn how to investigate where clothing sizes come from and how sizes differ between companies and countries.

 

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