Jun 12 2012
When Levi Strauss & Co. created blue jeans in 1873, the company knew that the first to snatch up the new pants would be hard-working western men: miners, lumbermen, farmers and ranchers, to name a few. Cowboys were also on this list, but company managers had no idea how iconic the image of the American cowboy would prove to be. Nor did they foresee how the cowboy would take Levi’s® 501® jeans and make them into a Western icon all their own.
One of the reasons this happened was the popularity of the rodeo, a sport which began informally as tests of skills among the cowboys who drove the large herds of cattle over the plains.
The word “rodeo” comes from the Spanish rodear, meaning to “round up,” and it comes down to us from the Spanish vaqueros of the early American West.
By the 1880s rodeos were being held as professional tournaments. Many of the cowboys who entered the various contests wore Levi’s® “overalls” – the old name for jeans. A few became famous, and so did their rodeos.
One of these cowboy contests celebrates its 125th anniversary this year: Prescott Frontier Days, in Prescott, Arizona. Located in the cooler mountain region of Yavapai County, about 100 miles north of Phoenix, Prescott’s first rodeo was held in 1888 and is today considered “The World’s Oldest Rodeo.”
Levi Strauss & Co. began to sponsor both rodeos and rodeo riders back in the 1920s, and used the sport’s popularity to advertise the 501® jeans. In 1926 Arizona native Lawton Champie won the “World’s Championship Broncho Busting Contest” at Prescott Frontier Days, and LS&CO. put his image – and that of his horse, Firebug Fits – on a flyer which salesmen gave away to retail customers throughout their territories.
Champie was quoted on the flyer, saying: “I have worn Levi Strauss Overalls ever since a small boy. I am over twenty-three years old. The Levi Strauss are the only clothes* that will really stand the hard, rough brush work of a cowboy on the range, and they are also neat to wear.”
The flyer was then translated into Spanish for the stores which served the large Hispanic populations of the Southwest. The image of Champie and Firebug Fits was also turned into a large poster for display in the stores which carried the company’s products.
This year's 125th anniversary of Prescott Frontier Days is a reminder that the Levi's® 501® jeans are the original cowboy blue jeans.
Posted By: Lynn Downey, Historian, Levi Strauss & Co.
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