Patents Everywhere – Levi Strauss and Blue Jeans

When you talk to your engineering librarians, you may think that we talk about Patents and Standards too often, but patents are all around you, including in your jeans! 

Born 1829 in Bavaria, Germany, Levi Strauss immigrated to the United States when he was sixteen when he immigrated to New York to escape religious discrimination by the German government (Strauss and his family were Jewish). When he arrived in America, Levi started working with his brothers at their dry goods store. In 1953 Strauss followed the thousands of hopeful people heading West for the Gold Rush. Strauss was not looking to mine any gold himself but was going to set up an expansion of his brothers’ store in California. Arriving in San Francisco, he established himself as an astute businessman, and over the next 20 years became wealthy and successful, helping to establish the first Jewish temple in San Francisco and supporting several charities. 

Levi Strauss

Despite his name being so famously connected to the brand, Strauss did not actually sew the first pair of blue jeans. This was done by a tailor by the name of Jacob Davis. According to the story, Davis was approached by a farmer’s wife who asked if he could make her husband a pair of pants that wouldn’t wear out as quickly as his other pairs. At this point, the most common material for work clothes was denim. As a fabric, denim is very thick and strong, unlikely to tear and able to put up with the wear and tear from manual labor. Being an experienced Tailor, Davis knew that the weakest point of any garment is the seams. His solution was to add metal rivets to reinforce the seams that got the most wear: the tops of the pockets and the bottom of the zipper. Davis soon had a booming business using his unique design, and recognizing that this innovation could have widespread use, Davis wanted to file a patent. He could not afford the $81 fee to file himself (it would be approximately $2,000 in today’s money), so he reached out to the wealthy businessman from whom he had purchased the denim to make the pants – Levi Strauss. In his letter to Strauss he wrote that “The secret of them Pents is the Rivits [sic] that I put in those Pockets and I found the demand so large that I cannot make them up fast enough.” Strauss agreed to the partnership, and they were awarded their patent, #139,121, “An Improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings” on May 20th, 1873. A fun fact about jeans is at this point in history they were called “waist overalls.” the term “jeans” didn’t become popular until the 1960’s.  

Illustration from the original Strauss patent

Due to a fire that destroyed most of the records for the very early days of the company, we don’t have a lot of information on the internal workings. We do know, however, that Strauss worked hard from the beginning to protect his company. When a patent is filed, the filer is the sole person who can use that technology for 17 years. Strauss knew that after those 17 years he would face stiff competition from other companies, so he set to work developing a brand that would ensure that his customers would continue to buy his product even when there were comparable items on the market. He registered trademarks and spent time and energy creating a strong image brand, including their famous “two horses” logo. Understanding that their main consumers, laborers, were often immigrants who did not read English, Strauss developed a strong visual brand. He also went after other companies for patent infringement, winning three different lawsuits between 1874 and 1876 and was awarded over $2,000 in damages (approximately the equivalent of $54,000 in 2022).  

The Levi’s “Two Horses” trademark

The original Straus patent is now expired, and today you can find rivets on a range of clothing. Over the company’s history, Levi’s has created and maintained many patents and trademarks that helped them to protect their intellectual property. Want to learn more about patents? We have resources for that! A great place to start is with our Patents Subject Guide, which you can find through this link or on our homepage.  

Downey, L. (2018, August 22). Levi Strauss. Immigrant Entrepreneurship. https://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entries/levi-strauss/ 

Unzipped Staff. (2019, July 4). The History of Denim. Levi Strauss & Co. https://www.levistrauss.com/2019/07/04/the-history-of-denim/ 

Who Made America? | Innovators | Levi Strauss. (n.d.). They Made America – PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/strauss_hi.html