Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss

Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, Bavaria in 1829 to Hirsch Strauss and his second wife. 

Two years after his father's death Levi and his siblings emigrated to New York. There, they were met by Jonas and Louis, their step-siblings, who had already made the journey and had started a dry goods business, called 'J. Strauss Brother & Co.'. Young Levi soon began to learn the trade himself.

When news of the California Gold Rush made its way east, Levi decided to emigrate to San Francisco to make his fortune by selling supplies to the throngs of miners who arrived daily in the big city to outfit themselves before heading off to the gold fields. In 1853 he arrived in bustling, noisy San Francisco, establishing a dry goods business under his own name and also serving as the West Coast representative of the family's New York firm.

The name of his firm was simply, 'Levi Strauss'. In the 1850s this location was very close to the waterfront, handy for receiving and selling the goods that arrived by ship from his brother Jonas' store in New York. The business expanded and in 1863 the company was renamed 'Levi Strauss & Co.'.
In his mid-thirties, Levi was already a well-known figure around the city. He was active in the business and cultural life of San Francisco, and actively supported the Jewish community. Despite his stature as an important business man, he insisted that his employees call him Levi, and not Mr.Strauss.

Jacob Davis, one of Levi Strauss' regular customers, purchased bolts of cloth from the company to use for his own business. He told the prosperous merchant about the interesting way he made pants for his customers: he placed metal rivets at the points of strain - pocket corners, and at the base of the button fly. He didn't have the money to patent his process, so he suggested that Levi pay for the paperwork and that they take out the patent together. Levi was enthusiastic about the idea and the patent was granted to both men in 1873.

He knew that demand would be great for these riveted 'waistoveralls' (the old name for jeans).
Davis supervised the cutting of the blue denim material and its delivery to individual seamstresses who worked out of their homes. But the demand for overalls made it impossible to maintain this system, and factories on Fremont and Market Streets were opened.

As the end of the 19th century approached, Levi left his the business to his nephews. In 1890 - the year that the lot number '501' was first used to designate the denim waist overalls - Levi and his nephews officially incorporated the company, though by this time he had begun to concentrate on other business and philanthropic pursuits.

Levi had been a charter member and treasurer of the San Francisco Board of Trade. He was a director of the Nevada Bank, the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Company and the San Francisco Gas and Electric Company. In 1875 Levi and two associates purchased the Mission and Pacific Woolen Mills from the estate of former silver millionaire William Ralston. Much of the mill's fabric was used to make the Levi Strauss & Co. 'blanket-lined' pants and coats. Levi was a contributor to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Hebrew Board of Relief. In 1895 he and a number of other prominent San Franciscans provided funds to build a new railroad from San Francisco to the San Joaquin Valley (a project which unfortunately failed). And in 1897 Levi provided the funds for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1902 Levi began to complain of ill health but by Friday evening the 26th, he felt well enough to attend the family dinner at the home. Then, peacefully, he died. His death was headline news in the San Francisco Call. On the day of his funeral, local businesses were temporarily closed so that their proprietors could attend the services.

Levi's estate amounted to nearly $6 million, the bulk of which was left to his family. Other bequests were made to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Home for Aged Israelites, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Orphan Asylums, Eureka Benevolent Society and the Emanu-El Sisterhood.

In summing up Levi's life and the establishment of his business, the San Francisco Call stated: 'Fairness and integrity in his dealings with his Eastern factors and his customers and liberality toward his employees soon gave the house a standing second to none on the coast.' An even more
fitting testimonial was pronounced by the San Francisco Board of Trade in a special resolution:

'the great causes of education and charity have likewise suffered a signal loss in the death of Mr. Strauss, whose splendid endowments to the University of California will be an enduring testimonial of his worth as a liberal, public-minded citizen and whose numberless unostentatious acts of charity in which neither race nor creed were recognized, exemplified his broad and generous love for and sympathy with humanity.'

* * * * * * *

On April 18, 1906 San Francisco was devastated by a massive earthquake and fire. Counted among the buildings which did not survive the catastrophe was the headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co. on Battery Street. The gas chandeliers were shaken from the walls and the escaping gas added to the already dangerous fire hazard. The building survived the earthquake, but not the fire, which raged for three long days: all dry goods, furnishings and business records were destroyed. The factories on Fremont and Market Streets suffered the same fate.

It was a great loss; but it did not signal the end to the company. As the ashes cooled, the Stern brothers made plans for a new facility and a new factory, as their uncle Levi would no doubt have done. They also continued to pay employee salaries and extended credit to other, less fortunate merchants until they could get back on their feet.

For although buildings and factories fell, the company built by Levi Strauss was bedrock solid, due to his foresight, his business sense and his unswerving devotion to quality.

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