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Born as Löb Strauss into a Jewish family in Buttenheim in Franconia, Bavaria, now a part of Germany. In 1847, Strauss, his mother and two sisters moved to New York City to join his brothers Jonas and Louis Löb in their dry goods business. By 1850 he had adopted the name "Levi Strauss".
In 1853, Strauss moved to bustling San Francisco, California, where the California Gold Rush was still in high gear. Levi expected that the mining camps would welcome his buttons, scissors, thread and bolts of fabric; additionally, he had yards of canvas sailcloth intended for tent-making and as covers for the Conestoga wagons that dotted the landscape next to every stream and river in the area.
It was on California Street that Levi and his brother-in-law David Stern opened a dry goods wholesale business called Levi Strauss & Co. Levi was often found leading a pack-horse, heavily laden with merchandise, directly into the mining camps found throughout the region. The story goes that both prospectors and miners, often complaining about the easily torn cotton "britches" and pockets that "split right out" gave Levi the idea to make a rugged overall trouser for the miners to wear. These were fashioned from bolts of brown canvas sailcloth, with gold ore storage pockets that were nearly impossible to split. Levi exhausted his original supply of canvas as the demand grew for his hard-wearing overalls, and so he switched to a sturdy fabric called serge, made in Nimes, France. Originally called serge de Nimes, the name was soon shortened to denim.
In 1872, Levi received a letter from Jacob Davis, a Reno, Nevada tailor. Davis was one of Levi Strauss' regular customers, who purchased bolts of cloth from the company to use for his own business. In this letter, Davis told Levi about the interesting way in which he made pants for his customers: he placed metal rivets at the points of strain—pocket corners and on the base of the fly. As he did not have the money to patent his process he suggested that Levi pay for the paperwork and that they take out the patent together.
On May 20, 1873, Strauss and Jacob Davis received United States patent #139121 for using copper rivets to strengthen the pockets of denim work pants. Levi Strauss & Co. began manufacturing the first of the famous Levi's brand of jeans in San Francisco, using fabric from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Levi Strauss died on September 26, 1902, at the age of 73. He left his thriving manufacturing and dry goods business to his four nephews—Jacob, Louis, Abraham and Sigmund Stern—who helped rebuild the company after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The following year, Jacob Davis sold back his share of the company.
Peter Haas and his family are the primary heirs to the Levi Strauss fortune.