Levi Strauss's life is one of the great examples of the American immigrant success story. Through hard work, the willingness to take risks, and some luck, Strauss became one of the most prominent citizens of San Francisco at the end of the nineteenth century. Strauss also lent his name to one of the best-known and best-loved U.S. products: Levi's blue jeans.
Learning the Business
Levi Strauss—first known as Loeb—was born on February 26, 1829, in the small village of Buttenheim, in the Bavarian region of Germany. His father Hirsch had four children with a first wife, and three with Rebecca Haas, Strauss's mother. The elder Strauss sold dry goods, and several of his sons continued the family business after they left Germany. The Strausses were Jewish, and the United States offered them greater freedom and opportunities.
"I am a bachelor, and I fancy on that account I need to work more, for my entire life is my business."
Levi Strauss made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1847 with his mother and two sisters. After his arrival in New York, Strauss went into business with his half-brothers Jonas and Louis, who had immigrated earlier. As an employee at J. Strauss Brother & Company, Strauss learned how to buy and sell cloth and other dry goods. In 1849, Strauss left for Kentucky to work as a peddler, selling an assortment of items out of a pack or trunk he carried on his back.
By this time, gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill, just outside Sacramento, California, drawing thousands of fortune hunters to the area. As the "gold rush" continued, Strauss's sister Fanny and her husband David Stern went to San Francisco to open a dry-goods business. In 1853, Strauss decided to join them. After becoming a U.S. citizen, he sailed for California, bringing dry goods supplied by his brothers' company.
Strauss set up his own wholesale business, called simply Levi Strauss, and acted as the West Coast agent for his half-brothers. As his business grew, Strauss moved several times to larger quarters. Eventually David Stern joined his business. Their supplies came by ship, and the partners never knew what goods would be available. The items Strauss and Stern bought included denim work pants or the fabric itself. Most of their goods were sold to miners, but as more families came to San Francisco, Strauss and Stern added clothing for women and children. Strauss occasionally left the city to sell goods to the small shops opening up near mining camps. He developed a reputation for selling quality goods at a fair price.
By 1861, Strauss had one of the most successful dry-goods businesses in San Francisco, and the firm continued to grow. Goods still came from the New York branch of the company, but Strauss also had items made on the West Coast, including pants. The first work pants he sold were made of canvas, but Strauss later switched to denim. He hired tailors to make the pants in their homes. The pants were just one of many products sold by Levi Strauss & Company.
During these years, Strauss lived with Fanny and David Stern. Dressed formally for work, he walked each day to his office. At the company, however, Strauss was not formal with his workers, insisting they call him Levi. Strauss was also becoming a leader in San Francisco's Jewish community. He joined an organization that helped needy Jews in the region, and he helped raise money to build a temple and a cemetery.
The Pants with the Rivets
One of Strauss's customers was a Nevada tailor named Jacob Davis. Like Strauss, Davis was a Jewish immigrant. In 1872, he sent Strauss a letter describing improvements he had made to denim pants; how he had made the seams stronger near the pockets and the fly. Davis also asked Strauss to pay for an application to patent the pants. By securing a patent, no other company could use Davis's design. Strauss could see that Davis had made valuable improvements, so he readily agreed. In 1873, his company sold its first pair of blue denim pants with rivets—the original Levi's blue jeans.
To make the pants that he called "waist high overalls," Strauss opened his first manufacturing plant, with Davis supervising the operation. The company also made denim jackets with rivets and later added work shirts to its line. Within a few years, the company had several hundred workers. Although Strauss also continued to sell wholesale dry goods, making and selling his own clothes eventually became the most successful part of his business.
As Levi Strauss & Company grew, the management changed. David Stern died in 1874, and his sons—Strauss's nephews—began entering the business and taking on more responsibilities. Strauss, however, continued to make major company decisions. Strauss's fortune also grew: an 1877 report said he was worth more than $4 million. This fortune included real estate as well as his share of Levi Strauss & Company. Other companies recognized his prominence, and Strauss was asked to sit on the board of directors of several area firms. He also served on the San Francisco Board of Trade, which promoted local products.
Even though Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss patented their riveted pants, competitors illegally copied the design. In 1874, Strauss filed the first of many lawsuits to stop other companies from copying his blue jeans.
During the 1890s, Strauss briefly turned his attention from clothes and invested in railroads. In 1891, he and other
The Haas Family Takes Charge
With no children to run Levi Strauss & Company after his death, Levi Strauss left his business to his nephews, the Sterns. In 1919, Jacob Stern brought his son-in-law Walter Haas into the company. Haas became chief executive officer (CEO) in 1928, and he and his sons receive the credit for making Levi Strauss & Company a worldwide leader in the apparel industry.
Walter Haas Sr. was born in San Francisco in 1889. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1910 after majoring in business. After serving in the military during World War I (1914-18), Haas took a job at Levi Strauss & Company. Within a few years, Haas asked his brother-in-law, Daniel Koshland, to join the firm. The two men focused on ways to improve profits at the company.
Haas served as CEO until 1955, then remained as chairman of the board until 1970. He remained active in the company's affairs until his death in 1979. His sons, Walter j. and Peter, were also heavily involved in the company. Haas Jr., like his father, studied business at Berkeley. He thought about being a doctor, but Levi Strauss was still a small company when Haas left college in 1937, and he felt compelled to enter the family business. He attended Harvard Business School and then joined Levi Strauss as a stock boy. In 1958, he succeeded Daniel Koshland as CEO. With Haas jr. running the company, Levi Strauss began to grow tremendously. "I don't think anybody could have anticipated the jeans boom [of the 1960s]," he told Daily News Record. Haas Jr. stepped down as CEO in 1976, and his brother took over.
In 1980, Haas Jr. won the respect of San Francisco Bay area residents when he bought the Oakland A's baseball team. The team likely would have left Oakland if he had not stepped in. Haas Jr., like his father, was also famous for his generosity. Both men gave large sums to Berkeley; the business school there is named for Haas Sr. Both also started foundations to distribute some of their wealth to charitable causes. An obituary after the younger Haas's death in 1995 noted that that he often said his generosity was "in the genes."
Haas Jr.'s son Robert took over Levi Strauss & Company in 1984. He continued the family tradition of attending Berkeley and, like his father, graduated from the Harvard Business School. Haas also served in the Peace Corps and worked as a consultant before joining the family business in 1973. Under Robert Haas, Levi Strauss & Company saw its best year ever in 1996, when sales reached $7.1 billion. After that, however, sales fell, and in 1999 Haas brought in Philip Marineau, the former CEO of Pepsi North America (see PepsiCo, Inc. entry), to run the company. Marineau was only the second person without ties to Levi Strauss to run the company. Haas remained involved with the company as the chairman of the board.
San Francisco merchants wanted to open their own railway to combat the high prices charged by existing lines to ship goods. That plan failed. A few years later, Strauss invested $25,000 in another railroad plan. This time, the man behind the project sold all the shares to another railroad company, which then struck a deal with the existing firms that charged high fares. After that disappointment, Strauss gave up on railroads and stuck with the business he knew best.
In 1897, Strauss again turned to philanthropy, giving money to the University of California, Berkeley, to fund twenty-eight scholarships. Strauss realized that having a fortune brought with it a responsibility to share. In an 1895 interview quoted in Everyone Wears His Name, Strauss said that riches "do not cause happiness to their owners." Spreading the wealth, he believed, brought greater joy.
By 1902, illness began to slow down Strauss, and he took a vacation to try to restore his health. By fall, however, his condition worsened, and he died in his sleep during the night of September 26. His death made the headlines of local papers, and shopkeepers closed their businesses to attend his funeral. Today, the Levi Strauss & Company Web site notes that its founder was praised for "his broad and generous love for and sympathy with humanity." He also left behind his name on the pants that became an American classic decades after his death.
For More Information
Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Levi Strauss: Everyone Wears His Name. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1990.
Emert, Carol. "Levi Strauss Hires New CEO from Outside Its Gene Pool." San Francisco Chronicle (September 8, 1999): p. Al.
"Longtime Levi Strauss & Company leader Walter A. Haas, Jr., Dies." Business Wire (September 20, 1995).
Marion, Peggy. "Walter Haas: Levi's Crusader." Daily News Record (November 7, 1983): p. 12.
Munk, Nina. "How Levi's Trashed a Great American Brand." Fortune (April 12, 1999): p. 82.
Norton, Justin M.. "Levi's Takes 'Low' Road with Soprano as Singer." Brandweek (June 18, 2001): p. 6.
Rhine, John. "Levi Rips the World's Oldest Jeans to Market." San Francisco Business Times (June 29, 2001): p. 6.
Sherman, Stratford. "Levi's As Ye Sew, So Shall Ye Reap." Fortune (May 17, 1997): p. 104.
Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley. [On-line] http://www.haas.berkeley.edu/haas/about.html (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Levi Strauss & Company. [On-line] http://www.levistrauss.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
"Strauss, Levi." Leading American Businesses. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3498000070.html
"Strauss, Levi." Leading American Businesses. 2003. Retrieved June 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3498000070.html
Levi Strauss (1829-1902) made and sold blue jeans in San Francisco, California, during and after the gold rush. His pants were so popular that Strauss' first name became a household word.
Levi Strauss' father Hirsch Strauss, a dry goods peddler, had four children, Jacob, Jonas, Lippman (later called Louis) and Maila (later called Mary), with his first wife, who died in 1822. Hirsch later married Rebecca Haas, with whom he had two children, Vogela (later called Fanny) and Loeb (later called Levi). Levi, the youngest of the family, was born on February 16, 1829 in the Bavarian village of Buttenheim.
Life in Buttenheim was not easy for Jewish people. They were allowed to live in only one small part of the town. The number of Jewish marriages was restricted, and Jews had to pay special taxes on their homes and businesses. Jews had been attacked and killed in nearby cities. Anti-Semitism drove many Jewish families to immigrate to the United States.
Hirsch Strauss was sick with tuberculosis, a serious lung disease, and could not travel. After he died in 1845, Jonas and Louis journeyed to America and began their own dry goods business. In June 1847, Rebecca, Maila, Vogela, and 18-year-old Levi obtained exit visas and passports. The family traveled to a German port and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a crowded ship. The uncomfortable voyage lasted many weeks.
The new arrivals joined Jonas and Louis in New York City, where many Jewish immigrants lived. Fanny married David Stern and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and later to San Francisco, California. Mary married William Sahlein, an uncle. By 1848, Jonas and Louis, who had been working as peddlers, opened a dry goods store in New York City. Levi Strauss began his life in America as a peddler. At the age of 19, he moved to Kentucky, still a frontier area, to sell his goods.
After gold was discovered in California in 1848, many people flocked there to make their fortunes, both by mining and by selling goods to the miners. The 24-year-old Strauss, having recently become an American citizen, joined David and Fanny Stern there in 1853, having endured a long, rough voyage with as many wares as he could carry.
Settled in San Francisco
Many legends exist about Levi Strauss, his arrival in San Francisco, and how he sold his first pair of pants. One story stated that, when the ship carrying Strauss approached the shore, men rowed to the vessel and quickly bought almost everything Strauss had brought with him. They paid in gold dust. All that remained was some canvas, a type of strong cloth used for making tents. When a miner heard that all he had left was "tenting," the man said that Strauss should have brought pants to sell, because they didn't last very long at the "diggin's." Strauss took the roll of canvas to a tailor who sewed a pair of pants for the miner. The fellow bragged about how strong those pants of "Levi's" were and that, supposedly, is how Strauss began making the work pants that bore his name.
In San Francisco, Strauss lived with his sister and brother-in-law. Strauss and Stern set up their first store near the wharves on Sacramento Street, where they sold dry goods sent to them by the Strauss brothers in New York and clothing sewn in San Francisco. Because the arrival of goods by sea was so unpredictable, Strauss also bought goods whenever he got the chance, at auctions held on just-arrived ships. He also traveled to many places in northern California, selling goods to miners.
Soon after Strauss had arrived in San Francisco, the Jewish residents of the city began collecting money to build a synagogue. Strauss and Stern donated money to the cause and became members of Temple Emanu-El, a congregation that still exists today. Strauss and another Bavarian Jew, Louis Sloss, donated a real gold medal to the temple each year, to be awarded to the child with the best grades in the Sabbath school.
As the business grew and expanded, Strauss and Stern moved Levi Strauss and Co. several times, finally settling on Battery Street. The wholesale company sold clothing, dry goods, linens, boots, and shoes. Many items were imported from Europe. The company manufactured some of its wares. Some of the firm's most popular items were denim work pants. The company distributed the fabric to seamstresses, who sewed the "waist high overalls" in their homes.
Besides making and selling goods, Levi Strauss and Co. bought real estate, including the Oriental Hotel, located in the center of the city. On October 21, 1868 a strong earthquake struck San Francisco. Strauss' new headquarters was still standing, but badly damaged. He and Stern began planning another building on Battery Street.
By 1870, Strauss was a millionaire and had earned a considerable reputation as a businessman and a philanthropist in San Francisco. He was a member of the Eureka Benevolent Society, a Jewish charitable organization that helped orphans, widows and the needy. With help from Temple Emanu-El, the society raised money to create a Jewish cemetery. Strauss also contributed to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home and the Hebrew Board of Relief. In 1869, Strauss became a member of the California Immigrant Union, founded to promote California products and to encourage immigration from Europe and the East Coast. In 1897, Strauss established 28 scholarships at the University of California and donated money to the California School for the Deaf.
Strauss enjoyed the cultural events of the city, such as theaters, concerts and social and literary clubs. He also liked giving elegant dinner parties for his friends in private dining rooms at the Saint Francis Hotel. Strauss had the reputation of being fair, honest and unpretentious. He wanted his employees to call him "Levi," rather than "Mr. Strauss." Although he never married or had children, he remained close to his siblings and their children.
Patented His Pants
One tale recalls Alkali Ike, a miner, and how he constantly tore his pants pockets by stuffing them with ore. To solve the problem, Jacob Davis, a Jewish tailor from Latvia, who then lived in Nevada and regularly bought cloth from Levi Strauss and Co., reinforced the pockets with copper rivets. Davis wanted to patent his invention, but lacked the money needed to do so. He wrote a poorly-spelled letter to Strauss on July 2, 1872, explaining his predicament, as quoted in Everyone Wears His Name: A Biography of Levi Strauss. "The secratt of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockets and I found the demand so large that I cannot make them up fast enough. My nabors are getting yealouse of these success and unless I secure it by Patent Papers it will soon become a general thing. Everybody will make them up and thare will be no money in it. Therefore Gentlemen, I wish to make you a Proposition that you should take out the Latters Patent in my name as I am the inventor of it." In August 1872, Strauss and Davis applied for a patent, which was granted on May 20, 1873. Davis came to work for Strauss, overseeing the firm's first West Coast manufacturing facility.
David Stern died on January 2, 1874, at the age of 51. His sons Jacob, Louis, and Sigmund all went to work for Levi Strauss and Co. In addition to his business, Strauss owned quite a bit of real estate in downtown San Francisco. He also served on the boards of many firms, such as the San Francisco Gas Co. In 1875, he bought the Mission and Pacific Woolen Mills, using much of the fabric for his "blanket-lined" pants and coats. In 1886, the leather patch showing two horses trying to pull apart a pair of pants was added to the waist overalls. In 1890, the same year the patent expired on the riveted pants, the company listed those pants in its catalog as number 501, a name that stuck. Strauss incorporated Levi Strauss and Co. in 1890, keeping 55 percent of the shares for himself and dividing the rest amongst the seven Stern children.
A New Railroad
In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was finally completed, but price fixing by the railroad companies made it very expensive to ship goods by train. In 1891, Strauss and other business owners in San Francisco attempted to create a new railroad line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, Utah. The plan failed.
Once again, Strauss tried to encourage the development of an alternate rail line. He contributed $25,000 to a scheme devised by Claus Spreckels, the sugar magnate. Other leading business owners also supported the plan to construct the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad. Spreckles, the major stockholder, sold his share to new managers, who charged the high rates of the other railroads. Strauss finally gave up on the railroad business.
Although his nephews were running the business by 1890, Strauss continued to go to his office daily, attend meetings, and remain the head of the company. In an interview published on October 12, 1895 in the San Francisco Bulletin, Strauss said, "I do not think large fortunes cause happiness to their owners, for immediately those who possess them become slaves to their wealth. They must devote their lives to caring for their possessions. I don't think money brings friends to its owner. In fact, often the result is quite the contrary."
When he entered his 70s, Strauss developed a heart condition. His doctors recommended more rest. The Strauss family had property in a quiet valley near San Francisco. He rested there as his nephews assumed more responsibility for the business. Strauss also spent time at a resort on the Monterey peninsula called the Del Monte, whose patrons included the most prominent citizens of San Francisco.
The death of Strauss on September 26, 1902 was considered a great loss to San Francisco and its citizens. The San Francisco Board of Trade passed a special resolution marking his death: "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."
Henry, Sondra and Emily Taitz, Everyone Wears His Name: a Biography of Levi Strauss, Dillon Press, 1990.
Narell, Irena, Our City: The Jews of San Francisco, Howell-North Books, 1981.
Weidt, Maryann N., Mr. Blue Jeans: A Story About Levi Strauss, Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1990.
Downey, Lynn, "Founder," Levi Strauss and Co., http://www.levistrauss.com (November 1, 1999). □
"Levi Strauss." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707682.html
"Levi Strauss." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved June 29, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707682.html