Oi Polloi

Levi's Roots: Inside the House of Strauss

Published: Fri Sep 23 2016

Maybe I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark too many times, but I always imagined the Levi’s archive would be a massive warehouse hidden in the desert, filled with crate after crate of ultra-rare, dead-stock delights. There’d be moths everywhere, it would smell like a Status Quo gig and if you opened the wrong box your face would melt away like a bin-bag on a bonfire.
This isn’t the case. Instead, it’s a well-lit room in the centre of San Francisco’s Embarcadero district. There’s a big table in the middle of the room, a fire-proof safe in the corner and loads of obscure red-tabbed memorabilia lines the walls. Unlike the slightly dingy warehouse of my imagination, it's pretty slick. 
We recently visited San Francisco as part of a top-secret, yet-to-be-disclosed project that may or may not feature pastel-hued denim legwear. Although we were only there for a grand total of two days, we made sure we stopped by this consecrated cabinet of curiosities.
Our guide was none other than Levi’s historian/archivist/fountain of knowledge, Tracey Panek. Here are a few interesting morsels of information she told us… 

The Oldest Jeans in the World

“We think they’re from around 1879. There weren’t any denim mills in San Francisco when we first started making these, so we were bringing in denim from Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. On the front, they look pretty much the same as today’s jeans, except they’re a really big cut. Back then jeans were called waist overalls, and they were intended to be pulled up over your long underwear.

The tell-tale sign that you’re looking at a 19th century pair of blue jeans is the single pocket on the back. We didn’t add the second pocket until 1901. We keep these in our fireproof safe. Most of our collection was lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire, so we had to rebuild our collection.

We don’t know of other jeans out there that are older, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We’re always surprised by things that show up. Last year we purchased some jeans from 1880 that are in amazing condition. There are a couple of tiny tears, but all the buttons are still there and all the rivets are still shiny. You never know what’s going to crop up.”


“Red tab was our original line. Orange Tab was our first different line. That was launched in 1969, and was the line where the designers could really experiment. We had used different colours on tabs earlier, but it meant different things.

We’ve used lots of colours for tabs. We got a pair last year which had a black tab with gold letters and gold plated buttons. They were made for a princess in Thailand. We also made a special gold tab for the 1984 Olympics. All of the Olympians received a special pair of 501s with a gold tab.”

More Old Jeans

These jeans were found by a woman called Barbara when she was a teenager in the 1940s. She was camping in the Mojave Desert. She’d gone exploring with her friends into a mine. They had no flashlight so they went as far as they could go. They got onto their knees because they could feel air going past their feet, and eventually it opened out into a room that was piled with Levi’s waist overalls.

She went through them and picked the best of the bunch, before bringing them home and wearing them to high school for the next two years. In the 1940s it was pretty unusual for a woman to be wearing pants, let alone blue jeans. 

After discovering something unusual on the inside pocket, she wrote a letter to the company. On the inside pocket was some print and our famous ‘two horse pull’. This was added as we were anticipating that our patent on jeans was going to expire, and we wanted a way to differentiate our garments. Underneath that were the words, 'For over 17 years we’ve been our celebrated blue denim copper riveted overalls.'

She knew from reading this that she was looking at a very old pair of overalls, so she wrote to the company asking if we were interested in them. For many years these were the oldest pair of jeans in the archives.

Jeans for Ladies

“In the 19th century, we began making working men’s pants. We continued with this through the turn of the century. But for women who were living in the West and also needed rugged pants, they were borrowing their dad’s or their brother’s—they didn’t have their own until Levi Strauss and Company brought out the very first jeans for women in 1934. We called them Lady Levi’s and they were a much slimmer fit. They were functional for women on ranches, but there’s also a bit of fashion in there. They’ve also got belt loops, which we’d added by the 1920s, and two back pockets.

We’ve got a great pair in our collection. We know the story with these because the woman who owned them put her name on the inside label. You can see her name, Harriet Atwood, on the inside. You can also see where she bought them —Best & Co, Fifth Avenue, New York. This is rather unusual, because we were a Western company, mainly selling in the West. During the thirties and forties there were a few select department stores where you could buy our product, like where Harriet bought hers. She bought them because there was something unusual going on at the time—the dude ranch craze.

People who were living on the East Coast, and even as far as Europe wanted to come to the American West and have the Western experience by staying on a cattle ranch for a vacation. They wanted to dress up as a cowboy, so they’d go to a department store and buy a pair of 501s or some Lady Levi’s. And that’s what Harriet did. She bought this pair and wore them at the Soda Springs dude ranch in Winrock, Arizona.

Here you start to see the shift beginning towards jeans being more of a fashion item, as opposed to a functional item.”

The Collection

“We don’t always publish our prices, but I can tell you that as a collection as a whole, you’re looking at somewhere close to six million dollars.

People often call because they’ve got jeans they want to share, and more often than not, they’re newer than they think. They’re a little disappointed about that. But we have acquired some interesting stuff, and people often donate them as they want them to ‘come home’ and be part of the collection.

Last year we added two very interesting things. There was a 1950s jacket that was owned by a coalminer in Colarado. His daughter had started wearing it in high school and finally donated it to us. And then there was a jacket worn by a rodeo bull rider that was completely worn and torn all over—it was in rags. The guy continued to wear it until I convinced him to donate it to our archives. He was on the bull riding circuit for nine years, and after each ride he’d wipe off his blood with the jacket. It’s an example of the emotional connection people have to their clothes.

We have all of our most used items, close to 1000 boxes, here on site. There’s a storage room behind here. And then we also have stuff off-site. Most of the things are stored in Fremont, where we also store a very large 1970s AMC Gremlin. It’s probably the biggest piece in the collection. It’s got a little orange tab on the driver’s seat and the Levi’s bat-wing logo just in front of the tyre. We did a custom Jeep too, but we don’t have one of those.”

Einstein’s Jacket

“We’re waiting on a piece that we just purchased in London—the very famous Einstein jacket. When we were looking at bidding for that, we looked through our catalogue collection to confirm that we definitely made a jacket like that in the thirties. We also purchased the Time Magazine issue where Einstein is wearing the jacket.

The jacket itself is in great condition—it has a certain smoky scent. Right around the collar it’s very black. I think that’s from the oil from his crazy hair.”

The Prison Jeans

“These jeans were created over thirty years by a man who was incarcerated in a Northern California prison. They started off as plain white Levi’s, but from 1979 to 2013 he illustrated all over them. It’s hard to see that they’re Levi’s, but if you look closely you can see the navy tab and the arcuate underneath all the design.

We got these from someone who’d purchased them from the man once he’d been released. He was outside of a poker hall and he was in need of cash.”

So there you have it, old jeans, weird cars and bored prisoners. Hang in there for more information on why we were over in 'Frisco coming relatively soon. Until then, here's a photo of Nigel and some like-minded fans of corduroy.

This article appears in Proper Magazine Issue 20. You can get that here.