Our archives are filled with interesting stories and rich content, here's a sample of some of our favorites.
Sometime around 1911, a miner working the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range left a few personal items behind in the bunkhouse he shared with other hopeful ore hunters. Eventually, the bunkhouse was abandoned, but the dry desert air preserved everything inside. A few years ago, the building was discovered by a mining enthusiast and the contents found their way to the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives.
The highlight of the collection is a beautiful pair of Levi’s® waist overalls (the old timers’ name for jeans). They were made in San Francisco around 1906, and are in amazing shape considering what they’ve been through.
Two Levi’s work shirts, as well as a few other interesting items, were found along with the jeans. One of the shirts is made of grey chambray and the other, bearing our “Sunset” brand label, is made of wool and has suffered some rodent damage. There’s also a tiny Bull Durham brand tobacco pouch, which still has the 1910 government tax stamp clinging to its fragile muslin fabric, and a page from the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper of 1911, found lying undamaged on the bunkhouse floor. And finally, our anonymous miner left behind a beautiful natural indigo bandanna.
This bunkhouse collection is a prime example of how our designers use the Archives for inspiration, sometimes even creating an exact replica of a treasured item in the Archives. Designers spend hours in the stacks poring over the old clothes, taking measurements, counting the stitches per inch in the seams, and comparing replica buttons to the real thing. It’s a painstaking process but it pays off: many of these new old items are snapped up quickly and auctioned off on eBay.
In the 1950s, jeans were not the fashion item they are today, and a lot of people thought that denim should be worn only when riding horses or working on the ranch. You certainly didn’t wear jeans out to dinner or in the lobby of a snazzy hotel — even if you were a famous singer like Bing Crosby.
Bing was a huge fan of Levi’s® jeans and jackets, which we were pretty proud of at the time. In 1951, Bing was in Canada on a hunting trip with a friend, and one night they decided to stay in a Vancouver hotel. Both men were dressed completely in denim (Levi’s® denim, in Bing’s case) and the desk clerk didn’t recognize the famous crooner. But that wasn’t the worst of it. This clerk did not feel that men who wore denim were appropriate guests for his establishment and refused to rent them rooms. (Eventually, the bellboy recognized Bing and the chagrined manager gave him and his friend a room.)
Back home on his ranch in Elko, Nevada, Bing told his neighbors about his experience in Canada, and they contacted us, because they thought we should know what had happened to Bing. Imagine the outrage when our company managers heard about this!
Soon after, a few of our designers put their heads together and created a denim tuxedo jacket for Bing. It was made of the sturdy denim used for 501® jeans, and decorated with a lovely corsage of red Tabs, held onto the lapel with a cluster of shiny copper rivets. Inside the jacket was a huge leather patch printed with a “Notice to All Hotel Men” stating that denim is a perfectly appropriate fabric and anyone wearing it should be allowed entrance into the finest hotels.
We presented the jacket to Bing at the 1951 Silver State Stampede in Elko, where he was honorary mayor. He was so tickled with the tux that he wore it to many press appearances for his next film, “Here Comes the Groom.” The original jacket, as well as one made for the town’s mayor, is in the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko.
We also made dozens of copies for display, and many have found their way into the vintage clothing market. The Levi Strauss & Co. Archives has some of these copies, which are worn occasionally by company managers at very special events.
While doing research in an old San Francisco newspaper called the Daily Alta California, Levi Strauss & Co. historian Lynn Downey came across an article with a very interesting headline in the issue dated March 12, 1885:
A DESPERATE CHARACTER
Under Arrest for Sending Threatening
Letters to Levi Strauss
The story concerned a Calaveras County, California storekeeper named Antonio Gagliardo, who was arrested on March 11 in San Francisco, charged with “felony in sending threatening letters to Levi Strauss, the well-known merchant of this city.” Gagliardo, who was one of LS&CO.’s retail customers, had apparently gone out of business, fled to Los Angeles and then wrote to Levi, asking him to “use his influence” to help him obtain a clerical job. Levi sent him $50 instead (worth about $1,200 today), which apparently enraged Gagliardo. He wrote Levi again, and told him that he had 10 days to help him get a job or he would “blow his (Levi’s) head off.”
Levi’s Italian acquaintances, many of whom knew Gagliardo, told him to have the man arrested, but Levi said he was simply “overexcited by his troubles.” However, when he learned that Gagliardo had made his way to San Francisco he was persuaded to tell the Chief of Police, who picked the man up and jailed him.
The case was thrown out of the police court at the beginning of April because Levi refused to prosecute. Why? Because the defendant “…promised to refrain from carrying his sanguinary promises into execution.”
This story, with its eerie echoes of urban life today, says a lot about Levi’s character. He was well-known enough to be seen as a man of influence; he was charitable to strangers; he had friends outside of his own social and cultural circle; and he liked to believe the best about his fellow citizens.
He also had guts. He had to be as gritty as his customers to start up and build his business in the lawless free-for-all that was 1850s San Francisco. As an old sewing machine operator once said of him, “He was tough, but a fine fellow.”
Russia — the former Soviet Union — is a fairly new market for Levi’s® jeans, but the company and the brand actually visited that country more than 50 years ago.
In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to increase cultural contact in order to ease tensions between the Cold War rivals. The agreement stated that exhibits are “an effective means of developing mutual understanding,” and both nations agreed to host exhibitions from the other country. The following year, the United States Information Agency coordinated the American National Exhibition in Moscow, which was opened by Vice President Richard Nixon on July 25.
Included in the displays of American culture, science and technology was a good-sized booth created by Levi Strauss & Co., filled with displays of 501® jeans and Western-themed advertising. Staffers wore jeans and cowboy shirts, and 501® jeans were also worn by entertainers hired to treat the crowds to some down-home American music.
Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and Western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. As described in a September 1, 1959 press release by the international press service R&F Features, “Eager Soviet visitors handled — and occasionally helped themselves to — display samples of the all-American denim pants.”
Levi’s® jeans were a coveted but forbidden capitalist item in the Soviet Union for the next 30 years. Then, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Russian citizens could buy “real” (not black market) Levi’s® jeans for the very first time. The LS&CO. Archives has a letter from one such happy customer, a woman named Larisa Popik, who wrote us in August 1991:
A man hasn’t very much happy minutes in his life, but every
happy moment remains in his memory for a long time. I’m
not the fanatic of clothes, but the buying of Levi’s jeans (501)
is one of such moments in my life. I’m 24, but while wearing
your jeans I feel myself like a 15-years-school-girl, I feel
myself like a graceful, slender and beautiful girl. Thank you
very much for such comfortable, soft, light and nice jeans.
Good luck to your kind and necessary business!
On October 26, 1881, the most famous shootout of the Old West took place in Tombstone, Arizona. It was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, an event which rocked the town of Tombstone, helped create the legend of Wyatt Earp and launched a thousand books and movies. Oh, and one more thing: Levi’s® jeans were there.
The gunfight at the O.K. Corral pitted the forces of law and order in the form of Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp, as well as Doc Holliday, against the forces of anarchy and cattle rustling, in the form of the McLaurys and the Clantons. After the shooting stopped, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead, shot by the Earps.
At the time of the gunfight, there was at least one store in Tombstone selling Levi Strauss & Co. riveted blue denim jeans or a selection of the company’s fine dry goods. It was a general mercantile called Schaffer & Lord, located at 501 Fremont Street, at the corner of Fifth Street, just yards from the O.K. Corral. In an 1880 advertisement they described themselves as “The Original Miners and Prospectors Store.”
The Earps and Doc Holliday probably didn’t wear Levi’s® jeans, as they did not consider themselves “laboring men.” However, since Tombstone was founded at the site of a major silver strike in the 1870s, it’s likely that there were still plenty of miners in town who did wear Levi’s® products, as well as a few of the local cowboys and rustlers.
There’s one final connection between LS&CO. and this legend of the Wild West. Wyatt Earp and his wife Josephine Marcus left Arizona and made their way toward California, spending some time in San Francisco, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Wyatt died there in 1929 at the age of 81. His wife had a family plot in Hills of Eternity cemetery in Colma, south of San Francisco, and she buried his ashes there.
Hills of Eternity is right next door to Home of Peace Cemetery — where, in 1902, Levi Strauss himself was laid to rest.