Little Bits of History

Waist Overalls

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 26, 2010

Levi jeans

February 26, 1829: Loeb Strauss is born in Buttenheim, Franconia, Bavaria, now Germany. He moved to New York City with his mother and two sisters, joining his two brothers in running their dry goods business. By 1850 Loeb changed his name to Levi.

In 1853, he moved to San Francisco, California to capitalize on the Gold Rush boom. He expected miners to happily purchase his buttons, scissors, thread, and bolts of fabric. He brought yards of sailcloth or canvas with him noting that it was used to cover the Conestoga wagons littering the countryside.

What he found instead were miners wearing cotton trousers that were not made to withstand the rigors of the mining life. They would easily tear and the pockets were constantly ripping. He used his canvas to make durable overall trousers with strong pockets for holding gold nuggets. The pants were durable, but they were also very uncomfortable. After using all his canvas, he turned to a different fabric called serge de Nimes since it originally came from Nimes, France. The name for the cloth was eventually shortened to denim.

Jacob Davis was a tailor living in Reno, Nevada. He used copper rivets to reinforce pressure points on harnesses. He was approached with a request to make a pair of pants for a large man who kept bursting the seams on his trousers. He used the rivets to reinforce the pants and it worked. He was using material purchased from Levi Strauss & Co. at the time. He could not afford the money to file a patent for the rivets, but he asked Strauss to help and they shared the patent, granted on May 20, 1873.

Davis joined Strauss and together they made their rivet reinforced denim pants, originally called waist overalls. Strauss left the company to his nephews who continued to run it. Then the great San Francisco earthquake destroyed the headquarters and two factories. They eventually rebuilt and Levi Strauss & Co. is still in business today.

“You got them, and they were stiff as a board, and you broke them in.” – Levi Strauss

“In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine Dwelt a miner, Forty-niner, And his daughter, Clementine.” – Percy Montrose

“I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans: the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes.” – Yves Saint Lauren

“Fashions, after all, are only induced epidemics.” – George Bernard Shaw

Also on this day, in 1919 President Woodrow Wilson signed an act establishing the Grand Canyon National Park.

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2 Responses

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  1. susan klee said, on September 6, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    When did the term “waist overalls” stop being used? I have read that it persisted “into the 60s,” but I began wearing them in the mid-50s, and never ever heard this term. Anybody else??

    • patriciahysell said, on September 6, 2014 at 6:31 pm

      According to Levi Strauss and Co., the name changed to simply “overalls” around 1902 and they were called that until the 1960s, when the term Jeans came into use. I remember them being called overalls as a kid, but I had never heard of the term waist overalls before writing this. I hope this helps.

      Click to access History-of-Levis-501-Jeans.pdf

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