May 02 2012
In July of 1885 a worn-out Harvard graduate named Owen Wister had a nervous breakdown. His doctor advised him to head out West to improve his health, so he traveled to a Wyoming cattle ranch. Surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery, cowboys who slammed down whisky in saloons, and gamblers who fleeced the unwary, the enchanted Wister went back home a new man. He made more trips West and, encouraged by his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Wister began to write stories and novels about the people and places that had inspired him.
While on these trips it’s very likely that Wister wore Levi’s® jeans.
And how do we know this? Because the jeans show up in his books.
In Lin McLean, published in 1897, the main character spends some time prospecting for gold in Nevada. In one scene he takes a walk along the river, looking at the men desperately trying to find the yellow metal:
Passing each busy prospector, Lin would read on every broad, upturned pair of overalls the same label, “Levi Strauss No. 2,” with a picture of two lusty horses hitched to one of these garments and vainly struggling to split them asunder.
“Overalls” was the old name for jeans, and these miners were wearing Levi’s® “No. 2” overalls, which also featured the famous Two Horse® design on the waistband. Introduced in 1890 and also called Lot 201, these were a “value” version of the classic 501® jeans. Both styles also show up in Wister’s most famous novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, published in 1902.
These are just the first books to feature the Levi’s® brand. There are plenty more.
In the 1915 novel Ruggles of Red Gap, Harry Leon Wilson gives us the story of a stuffy English butler getting accustomed to life in the wild West. He is shocked by the way the cowboys dress in “quite faded and wretchedly spotty” overalls, and is dismayed by the very visible Two Horse® logo on the leather waistband patch. Ruggles tells the reader, “I mean to say, one might be reduced to overalls, but this blatant emblem was not a thing any gentleman need have retained.”
The Levi’s® brand also plays a supporting role in one of the twentieth century’s most influential novels: Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. While traveling the West, Kerouac’s characters wear and talk about Levi’s® jeans and jackets. In fact, famed poet and novelist William S. Burroughs once said that Kerouac “…sold a million pairs of Levi’s” with his book.
And in 1967 a Texas-born woman named Eulalia Bourne, who became a teacher in a remote area of Arizona in the 1930s, published a memoir of her experiences called Woman in Levi’s.
The list goes on. Do you have a favorite example of the Levi’s® brand in literature? How about books from beyond the borders of the U.S.? Post a comment and share your thoughts.
The "blatant emblem" with the "two lusty horses."
Posted By: Lynn Downey, Historian, Levi Strauss & Co.
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