San Francisco alchemist: He made gold out of blue denim

Levi Strauss and Co.'s red brick corporate headquarters are just below Coit Tower.

“Gold!” “Gold!” The cry went out in 1848 from Sutter’s Mill, 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, and thousands of men and women around the world rushed to the American West to seek their fortunes.

Jews, too, joined the Gold Rush. But most of them, like the Bavarian-born Levi Strauss, realized that fortunes could be made by providing supplies and services to the miners. They set up shop in canvas tents or in hastily built wooden shacks in the new mining towns and in San Francisco, the city where most miners outfitted themselves before setting out to dig.

Many of the Jews who came would remain to help build the dynamic, cosmopolitan city on the bay, becoming prominent in commerce, banking and industry. As the wealth of these pioneers grew, they would become major benefactors of the symphony, the opera, the theater, the public library, the universities, recreation areas and much more.

The German-speaking Jews, especially those from Bavaria, would also become members of the city’s social elite. Names such as Strauss, Stern, Haas, Lilienthal, Gerstle, Sloss, Greenebaum, Koshland, Levison, Zellerbach and Fleishhacker are deeply woven into the fabric of San Francisco history, and marriages between the families created an intricate web of strong and supportive relationships.

Whereas in Europe, even after the revolutions of 1848, Jews were still treated as second-class citizens, in Gold Rush country Jews were accepted as equals, and anti-Semitic incidents were rare, according to historian Irena Narell, author of Our City: The Jews of San Francisco. Jews became politicians and judges; they sat on the boards of cultural, educational and economic institutions in the new state of California. One even became governor of the state.

Strauss, the son of a dry goods peddler, was 24 when he arrived in San Francisco in 1853 to open his own wholesale dry goods business and a branch of a similar business his step-brothers owned in New York. According to popular myth, he immediately had the brilliant idea of making sturdy denim work trousers for miners and of reinforcing points of strain, especially the pockets, with copper rivets.

The truth, according to historians at Levi Strauss and Co., is a little different. Denim was already in use for work clothes, and one of Strauss’s regular customers, a Latvian-born tailor named Jacob Davis, came up with the idea of using rivets. But in 1872 Davis turned to Strauss, by then a successful businessman, for financial help in patenting the invention; in 1873 the patent was granted to both men.

That year, Strauss and Davis started manufacturing the work trousers that became increasingly popular and eventually came to be known as “jeans.” Neither man, however, could have imagined that one day jeans would be worn for both work and play, that they would be sold in more than 100 countries and that they would become so popular that net sales would mushroom to billions of dollars.

Despite Strauss’s early success, he did not put on airs. “He encouraged his employees to call him Levi,” said Lynn Downey, a company historian.

Strauss was generous, too, with his wealth. As a member of Temple Emanu-El, he contributed to the gold medal given annually to the best Sabbath School student. He also supported the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home, the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Hebrew Board of Relief.

Starting in 1897, Strauss provided the funds for twenty-eight scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley, just across the bay. Eleven of the original recipients were women.

Strauss never married; he lived with his sister, Fanny Stern, and her family. Of Fanny’s four sons, who would inherit the business, Sigmund was Strauss’s favorite.

When Strauss died in 1902, the front page of the San Francisco Call carried the story. On the day of the funeral, local businesses closed so that their proprietors could attend the services. Strauss left most of his $6 million estate to his four nephews, but there were also bequests to his favorite charities.

The devastating fire that followed the great earthquake of 1906 destroyed the company’s headquarters, including all records, and both factories. Strauss’s nephews not only rebuilt the company but helped other merchants get on their feet again. To this day the company is privately owned by descendants of the family, who continue to support cultural and educational endeavors throughout the city. Chairman emeritus of the board is Bob Haas, Strauss’s great-great-grandnephew.

Despite the family’s great wealth, its members prefer not to display it ostentatiously, says company historian Stacia Fink. “They don’t drive it, they don’t wear it,” she said.

Elise Fanny Haas (daughter of Sigmund Stern) is just one example of the family’s involvement and achievements. She was the first woman to become president of the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. When she died in 1990, she left 37 works to the museum, including Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau. The foundation she and her husband, Walter, established supports all the arts, especially dance, theater, music, museums and youth development through the arts. Blue denim had turned to gold, and gold had turned to culture.

Next:  San Francisco: Jewish connections everywhere

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

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One Response to “San Francisco alchemist: He made gold out of blue denim”

  1. Mark McGreevey Says:

    Wasn’t Levi really called Loeb? I often wondered why he changed it to yet another Jewish name. Was “Loeb” hard to pronounce for English speakers? Well “Call me Levi” was certainly egalitarian. As for denim, it was a crosswoven type of heavy and strong indigo-dyed sailcloth made in Nimes, France, hence the name Denim. It was brought by Strauss as a possible tent material and was piling up unsold. He was looking for another use for it. And Davis had that idea when he saw the miners with their ripped mountain clothes.

    Nowadays blue jeans are everywhere but not by some miracle. If you read the San Francisco papers, Willie Brown’s Sunday column reveals that he tried as mayor in 1990’s to bring back a more conservative and professional dress code to City Hall and all civil service offices. When he tried to push it through, he got a call from Don Fisher, owner and founder (with wife) of GAP, and was told to withdraw the idea. Fisher had spent years trying to get people into jeans and by God, Willie Brown could be the Mayor of SF but not have the power to stop people from coming to work in jeans!!!!

    Amazing that the real details of history are in the secret phone calls.

    Another detail: Levi’s of SF allowed their male employees to wear bluejeans to work as it was, after all, their own product, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Women had to wear skirts and dresses to work there. When some women protested against this, the first impulse to allow women to wear pants BUT NOT LEVIS to work began, as a compromise, and schools also would NOT ALLOW LEVI’s as most employers today do not. They appear too casual, insulting the customers, especially at any official level.

    I too work as a tourguide in San Francisco, so the details of local history interest me quite a bit. Fun fun fun ain’t it!

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