A little blast from the past blew into town recently when retired Levi Strauss & Co. Historian Lynn Downey stopped by our San Francisco Headquarters to chat about her new biography on Levi Strauss, “Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World.”
Lynn was the company historian for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2014, and her exhaustive research for the biography yielded a number of nuggets, both moving and amusing:
Sometimes we get it wrong
Among the unfounded myths that crop up about LS&Co. (no, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had nothing to do with the company) are the occasional fictions that come from us. Despite what you might have seen in Levi’s® ads past, the company was not started in 1850 – since Levi Strauss himself didn’t even arrive in San Francisco until 1853! After Lynn noticed the discrepancy, the date was changed in marketing materials – including the Valencia Street building.
Another myth with legs? The origins of the 501® name. Nobody knows where that name comes from – but it is NOT because the first jeans had 501 rivets on them.
“Yeah. Try walking in a pair of pants with 501 rivets on them,” Lynn said. “Oh my god.”
Honoring the past
Levi Strauss left his hometown in Bavaria in 1848 and never looked back. But more than 50 years later, he heard that the cemetery there – where is father was buried – had become run down, and that city leaders wanted to fix it up. He sent half the money to make that happen.
“He hadn’t been back in 50 years, but it was still his home village,” Lynn said. “He wanted to make sure it was made clean and whole for those ancestors of his who were still there. I’m sure that was the most meaningful personal donation he ever made in his life.”
Levi Strauss worried about the potential for fire to destroy San Francisco, and actually testified to the Board of Supervisors about the risk posed by all the new wooden structures.
“Once there was a fire at the headquarters, and he was so happy the fire brigade came so quickly to put it out that he threw this gigantic banquet for the fire department at the company headquarters,” Lynn said. “He left, I think, 500 dollars (1902 dollars) in his will to the fire department.”
Ironically, several years after his death, the devastating fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the company’s headquarters, factory and entire inventory.
Letters from Levi
One of Lynn’s most “interesting” acquisitions for the LS&Co. archives involved a bottle of wine, a gold coin, and years of negotiations.
In 2006, she got a call from a Sonoma man who found an original letter from Levi Strauss in his family’s possessions – a thank you letter to a fellow Bavarian couple who likely carried Levi’s® in their store and had sent a bottle of wine to Levi for the holidays. But the man had a very specific price – he wanted a 1915 gold coin in return for the letter. After years of fruitless negotiations, Lynn was telling the story to a group of amateur historians, one of whom happened to be a dealer in gold coins! Lynn bought the coin and traded it for the letter, which now makes its home in the company archives.
Interested in reading more about the life of Levi Strauss? Check out Lynn’s book, “Levi Strauss: The Man who Gave Blue Jeans to the World” through the University of Massachusetts Press, Amazon and other leading book outlets.