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).