Horses as a Marketing Tool: The History of Levi Strauss Jeans

Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA – Levis

Levi Strauss jeans are as American as any item ever manufactured in the USA, and like anything worth owning, they never go out of style. It all started with two immigrants from Bavaria and Lithuania with ambition, an idea…and horses who promoted their wares.

Dress them up or dress them down, they are a staple in the wardrobe of many lifestyles.  I wore Levi’s in the ’70s and I still wear them today, and I mean today, as I am wearing them at this writing. Just to be clear, they are not the same jeans I wore in the seventies nor the same size, but they are still Levi’s.  They are timeless. And as American as they are,  these iconic jeans have roots that trace back both to Lithuania and Bavaria.

The history of Levi Strauss and his jeans is also the history of Yakov Youphes and his jeans. Youphes was born in 1831, a Jew whose family lived in the city of Riga located in the Russian Empire (now the Samogitia area of Lithuania) He spent his youth in Russia and became a craftsman, a tailor.  

Photo by M62 • licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Seeking a better life, in 1854 at the age of 23, Yakov (Russian for Jacob) immigrated to America and took the name of Jacob William Davis.  This was a time when immigrants chose to change their names due to the need of being certain that their names would not be misspelled or pronounced incorrectly – perhaps from fear of associated legalities, or just wanting their name sound more American. 

Davis ran a tailor’s shop in New York City, a destination that gave immigrants their first taste of America, before he moved to Maine, then California – first San Francisco and then to Weaverville. Not satisfied, Davis left California and went to Canada to pan for gold.  Whether he found gold or not, I cannot say; however, he did find a wife, a German immigrant named Annie Parksher.  That partnership produced 6 children before Davis and his family moved back to San Francisco in 1867.

In 1868 they moved once more, this time to Reno, Nevada. After trying other methods of earning money, Davis returned to his craft of being a tailor, making utilitarian items such as tents and horse blankets. The material used was heavy-duty cotton from a dry goods store owned by Levi Strauss, based in San Francisco, CA.  Strauss was also an immigrant who came to America in 1852. In January 1867, the Davis family made one final move back to San Francisco. 

In 1870, at the request of a wife looking for heavy-duty work clothes for her husband, Jacob Davis created a pair of pants made from duck cloth, a type of canvas which he then reinforced with copper rivets at the seams; later, “denim” became the fabric of choice. A true entrepreneur, Davis used orange thread, sewing a double stitched design on the back pocket of the jeans, to distinguish his jeans from any future competition.

The word Denim comes from a fabric called “serge de Nimes”, a cotton cloth originating in the French city of Nimes. Due to the fabric being manufactured from cotton produced in Genoa, the French termed the indigo blue-dyed material “genes” which eventually transitioned into “jeans”…and that is how “blue jeans” came to be.

Standing up to the rigors of harsh physical labor, this new breed of pants caught on quickly, and Davis could not keep up with the demand. Realizing he needed to patent his concept, he approached Levi Strauss for financial aid in filing the patent. In 1873, US Patent number 139,121 was issued in the names of Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss and Company. Levi Strauss became the parent company, setting up a shop in San Francisco where Davis managed production.  

Marketing is everything, and the first promotion of these iconic jeans began with a public display showing the enduring strength of their product. Two horses were used to pull a pair of jeans going in opposite directions, a scene that became their now-iconic leather label (even as it evolved over time).  

Those blood ties to Lithuania and Bavaria still have influence today.  I recently had the pleasure of “meeting” Gintaras Kaltenis by email.  Kaltenis is a Lithuanian writer and author with an extensive history as a horseman, a champion professional showjumper, and a long rider dedicated to reviving the interest and protection of the Samogitian horse native to Lithuania. In 2010, Kaltenis and a team of 10 riders rode over 1,200 miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  The trip was called 2000 KM of History, referencing the historical empire during the 14th century.  It is still joked that the trip inspired Ukraine to continue its fight for freedom. 

In his quest to promote the Samogitian breed of horse, Kaltenis’s research revealed the Lithuanian ties to America and Levi Strauss. An idea of using Samogitian horses to reenact the original endurance test of Levi’s jeans sprung to life. He contacted Levi Strauss & Co, who lent their support to the event. 

Television personality and news anchor Saulus Pilinkus was chosen to host the event.  A huge Levi’s jeans fan, he presented Kaltenis with a pair of Levi boots! Before this writing, I was not aware that Levi Strauss & Co even made boots!

While the event planned was to be incorporated in the St Michaels Day festival, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging and they were forced to cancel the celebration – but the test prior to the event became a celebration within itself.  Below is an excerpt from Irytas.It magazine, who also covered the test (translated here from Lithuanian):

Which is stronger – the legendary “Levi’s” jeans or Samogitian horses? The answer to this question is promised during the St. Michael’s Festival in Rietavas. A rehearsal for future races took place last weekend.

Kaltenis thought that it would be interesting to repeat the American test of the strength of jeans in Lithuania because Samogitian horses are famous for their exceptional strength and endurance. The idea proposed by Vilnius was supported by the organizers of the Rykavas Mykoliniai Festival, who included the test on September 25-26. the city’s birthday program. All the participants of the celebration were invited to dress in denim clothing. A pilot test was performed at the Rietavas stud farm last weekend. Kumelaitė Kana and Kolta beat Levi’s jeans in the fourth test. Instead of the legendary 501 buttoned metal buttons, the model was equipped with more modern 505 zippered jeans. True, it did not affect – the pants tore not through the seams, but through the tongue.

As an author, Kaltenis has written books for children as well as adults, including Jeans Smell of Freedom – a children’s book focused on America’s jeans and how Jacob Davis immigrated and created the world’s first jeans, Levi’s.  It is about occupied lands and how at the same time the Oginski family in Lithuania prevented the Samogitian horses from extinction. Jeans Smell of Freedom is currently being made into a movie, to be released in the spring of 2022.

With Lithuania less than 15 hours away from the Ukrainian border, this book resonates.

Strauss and Davis could not possibly know their creation of a simple pair of pants known for their endurance would hold such significance today. Almost 150 years since the patent was issued, Levi Strauss is a worldwide company still headquartered in San Francisco. Boots and shoes are just one way the Levi-Strauss Co brand has expanded since its inception – they also have a clothing line that includes the brands Dockers, Signature, Denizen, and Beyond Yoga.

Levi jeans are now only part of the program, though they are the most recognized product bearing the Levi name. Variations of the jeans and their labels have evolved through the years…remember the bell-bottoms?

Even more interesting is Levi Strauss & Co has expanded into the entertainment field.  Celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, have appeared in a lounge that bears their trademark and is just minutes away from their headquarters in San Francisco. Opened in 2016, the Levi Strauss Lounge continues to rock. An excerpt from their website:

Whether you’re rocking out to your favorite indie group at your local bar or swaying to Springsteen at an arena, Levi’s® is often the uniform of choice for fans and bands alike.

The Levi’s® brand is at its best when it’s at the center of culture. And now it’s set to hit center stage.

Enter the Levi’s® Lounge, a performance space just a few blocks from the Levi Strauss & Co. San Francisco headquarters. The space is brought to you by our own iconic brand and Cumulus Media, a leader in the radio broadcasting industry.

“As the original jeans brand, we stand for authentic self-expression, and music is our means of celebrating that and driving cultural relevance,” Levi’s® CMO Jen Sey said. “It’s a natural fit for Levi’s® because artists with original and authentic voices — from Bruce Springsteen to The Ramones, Kurt Cobain to Classixx, Debbie Harry to Haim — choose to wear Levi’s®. The Levi’s® Lounge gives us yet another opportunity to showcase and partner with musicians with original voices.”

Levi Strauss & Co is a diverse company supporting its community and continues to evolve and expand. They have over 500 stores worldwide and can be found in 100 countries.

The Levi Strauss Foundation, a philanthropic institution that has partnerships in 40 countries, is dedicated to workers’ rights, worker well-being, and social justice.  Established in 1952, they have given over 340 million dollars since its inception to make a difference.  

From their Foundation website: The Levi Strauss Foundation’s philanthropic work is grounded in the company’s values of originality, integrity, empathy and courage.

And it all started with two immigrants from Bavaria and Lithuania with ambition, an idea…and horses who promoted their wares.  

Barb currently resides in Central Florida with her three horses; when she’s not writing or riding for HRL, she loves to read and travel.