Levi rivet creator to be honored in Reno
RENO (AP) – In 1871, an obscure Reno tailor named Jacob Davis was given $3 to make a pair of trousers sturdy enough for a large woodcutter who quickly wore out his pants.
The Latvian immigrant’s ingenious idea of using metal rivets to strengthen the pants would not only please his customer but lead to one of the world’s best known brands: Levi’s blue jeans.
Now, 133 years after a patent for the copper-riveted work pants was granted to Davis and San Francisco merchant Levi Strauss, the city of Reno is paying tribute by placing a historical marker on Virginia Street, where Davis’ little shop once stood.
“Davis is the unsung hero of everybody’s favorite piece of clothing,” said Lynn Downey, historian for Levi Strauss & Co. “He created the technology that gave us the blue jean.”
After the riveted pants proved an instant success in Reno, Davis approached the company’s namesake about joining him on the patent and beginning the large-scale manufacture of denim “waist overalls.”
Strauss’ company, which the Bavarian immigrant began in 1853 as a wholesale dry goods business, branched out to making jeans after U.S. patent No. 139,121 was granted on May 20, 1873. Davis became head of the company’s new jean manufacturing division, while Strauss continued as company owner.
“It took both of them to bring the blue jean to the world,” Downey said. “The most American garment was created by two immigrants.”
Miners, loggers, farmers and others had long worn heavy work pants, but before Davis’ innovation the pockets would rip open and the trousers would not last long.
His decision to use 11 copper rivets at pocket corners and other stress points was credited for making pants last longer and workers more efficient.
They were the prototype for Levi’s 501 jeans, which still use rivets.
The breakthrough was hailed by a San Francisco journal of the time.
“Simple as (Davis’) device seems, nevertheless, it is quite effective, and we do not doubt that his manufacture, of overalls especially, will become quite popular among working men,” the Pacific Rural Press reported on June 28, 1873.
“Nothing looks more slouchy in a workman than to see his pockets ripped open and hanging down. … Besides its slouchy appearance, it is inconvenient and often results in the person losing things from his pockets,” the newspaper added.
Rival companies embraced the use of rivets as soon as the patent expired in 1890.
Among those planning to attend the May 20 ceremony in downtown Reno is Davis’ 54-year-old great-grandson, Frank Davis. He owns Ben Davis Co., a worldwide clothing company based in Novato, Calif. The clothing company, whose line includes work pants, was launched in 1935 by Frank Davis’ 92-year-old father, Ben.
“I guess the garment business is in our blood,” Frank Davis said, acknowledging he knows little about his great-grandfather.
“Jacob was uneducated, but a pretty smart guy and a little ahead of his time. I think it’s nice that he’s going to be recognized in Reno,” he said.
Jacob Davis continued to supervise Levi’s factory until his death in 1908 in his 70s, according to the Ben Davis Co. Web site.
The Reno Historical Resources Commission is placing the plaque to give Jacob Davis long overdue recognition, said Mella Harmon, curator at the Nevada Historical Society.
“He’s overshadowed by Levi Strauss, and Renoites have never even heard of him,” she said. “It’s still a hidden story, and we want to reveal it to the world.
“It’s one of those iconic words – when you mention Levi’s, everyone in the world knows about it. Jacob Davis set it on its course,” Harmon said.
Davis’ tailor shop was destroyed by an 1873 fire, and no photographs of it have ever surfaced. The site is now covered by the shuttered Rocky’s Sports Casino across from Harrah’s Reno.
“It was a small shop, and he lived with his family in the back,” Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha said, adding Davis’ invention came less than three years after Reno was founded.
Since then, Levi Strauss has sold more than 3.5 billion pairs of jeans, most of them since World War II.
Previously, Levi’s were sold only in the West. National and European distribution began in the 1950s, and sales exploded in the 1960s and 1970s after Levi’s spread to Asia and other countries.
“They became much bigger with younger people in the 1950s after James Dean and Marlon Brando wore them in movies and popularized them,” Downey said. “It started going away from work wear to leisure wear and fashion.”
Despite its worldwide fame, Levi Strauss has spent most of the past decade scrambling to survive as trendsetters shunned the Levi’s brand and cost-conscious consumers snapped up lower-priced clothing made overseas.
The San Francisco-based company closed the last of its U.S. manufacturing plants several years ago and started making all its clothes overseas to hold down prices.
“We’ve kept jeans updated for every generation,” Downey said. “But they still look essentially the same today as back then. Your grandfather could still wear them and recognize them.”
On the Net:
Levi Strauss & Co.: http://www.levistrauss.com
Ben Davis Co.: http://www.bendavis.com
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