Think of a brand of denim jeans, and most people would probably think of Levis. But Levi Strauss didn’t know one end of a sewing machine from another.
What Strauss was, however, was a very shrewd and successful businessman. He started out as a shopkeeper who made a fortune from the gold rush – not from gold, but from selling essential supplies to prospectors. (A theme we’re still quite keen on here at MoneyWeek when it comes to mining.)
One of Strauss’s regular customers was Jacob Davis (born Jacob Youphes), a Latvian immigrant who worked as a tailor in Reno, Nevada. He bought cloth to make trousers for workers on the railways.
His jeans were very hard-wearing – whereas other brands’ pockets fell off with heavy use, Davis’s pockets were riveted on. It wasn’t long before he was unable to supply enough to keep up with demand. He knew he was on to a winner, so he decided to patent his riveting reinforcement invention before other tailors copied his invention.
The trouble was he didn’t have the time or the money. So he asked Strauss for financial backing, proposing that Strauss take out the patent in Davis’s name. And on 20 May 1873, Davis was granted US patent number 139,121 for “Improvement in fastening pocket-openings”.
The two went into business together, with Strauss setting up a jeans factory bearing his name in San Francisco, which Davis managed. He would work there for the rest of his life, overseeing the production of the jeans that made his partner one of the most famous names in the world. Davis died in 1908, and was succeeded by his son. In 1935, Davis’s grandson, Benjamin Davis, founded the Ben Davis Clothing Company, which is still around today, making workwear.
Oddly, the name Jacob Davis was never trademarked in relation to clothing, and has now been appropriated by a firm of bearded Californian hipsters, who have set up their own clothing – or, rather, “lifestyle” – brand.