May 20 2012
Today, May 20, is what we call the “birthday of blue jeans” – the date Levi Strauss & Co. and Reno, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis received U.S. patent number 139,121 for the process of strengthening men’s work pants with copper rivets. That was 139 years ago.
Here are a few little known facts as we mark the birth of blue jeans...
The name “denim” originated before the 17th century in the town of Nimes, France with the fabric called serge de Nimes. This fabric was also made in England in the late 1600s, but was not the silk and wool blend that had been made in France. It was still called serge de Nimes, but using a zippy French name might have just been clever marketing. By the 18th century the name was now the very English denim, and it was a cotton fabric.
When American mills began to make the fabric in the 18th century, the fabric was 100% cotton and was always known as denim, never serge de Nimes. The word first appeared in an American dictionary in 1864.
Denim was used for heavy workwear before Levi Strauss & Co. put rivets in denim pants to make the first jeans in 1873 – which is why Levi and his partner Jacob Davis chose denim for their new product.
English explorer Isabella Bird (1831-1904) visited the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1872, and wrote about her experiences in a number of books, including The Hawaiian Archipelago. She stayed for awhile in the home of a family in Onomea, on the big island of Hawaii. She noted in her writings that the wife of the Chinese cook, who did sewing and housework, wore “a scanty loose frock of blue denim down to her knees, wide trousers of the same down to her ancles.” [That’s how she spelled ankles.]
After World War II denim started to be used for leisurewear. In 1956 the magazine American Fabrics put it best: denim was now “an entirely new clothing category: it used to be work clothes but now it’s work ‘n play clothes.”
There you have it. Here's to you celebrating this birthday in your favorite birthday attire -- as long as it's Levi's® jeans!
Posted By: Lynn Downey, Historian, Levi Strauss & Co.
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