Levi’s Celebrates 150th Anniversary
Tomorrow, May 20th is a very special day within the denim industry, and in particular for Levi’s as they celebrate the 150th anniversary of their legendary 501 jeans. The 501 is a true icon, a very special pair of jeans that stood the test of time. It became the cornerstone for many people’s outfits each day and is now one of the most iconic designs within the denim and fashion industry.
My interview in the Dutch newspaper for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Levi’s’ 501. See more of this interview here. Check also my interview for the Dutch radio for the 501 celebration here.
One of the biggest pairs of Levi’s ‘Big E’ 501 jeans in my archive. This pair is from the 1950s, so with hidden rivets on the back pockets.
The Day The Rivet Was Born
150 years ago a revolution started within the denim industry. On that day, Levi Strauss received its ‘rivet’ patent together with tailor Jacob Davis. The rivet is maybe one of the most important milestones, and many see this as the starting point of blue jeans as we still know today.
The idea of the rivet patent started when Reno, Nevada-based tailor Jacob Davis came up with the idea in 1871-2 to use the same rivets as he used to strengthen horse blankets on workwear pants after a women complaint that her husband ripped his jeans constantly while carrying (heavy) rocks in his pockets. So, on weak points, he decided to use these small copper nails to make them stronger, so they will last longer. As Jacob Davis didn’t have the roughly $68,- to pay for the patent he reached out to his fabric supplier Levi Strauss, at this point he didn’t make jeans yet. Levi Strauss had been a dry goods wholesaler in San Francisco for 20 years when Davis approached him about his great new system for making sturdy men’s work pants with metal rivets.
Together they got the patent on the 20th of May in 1873. This patent is known as No. 139,121: ‘Fastening Pocket-Openings’. Nowadays each, or almost all, pairs of jeans feature rivets.
Original Levi’s rivet from the 1880s, written with bigger info: ‘Pat. May 1873’. This rivet was found in an old abandoned gold mine in Nevada, USA.
The First Original Rivets In My Archive
During the 25+ years that I’m working within the industry, I have collected many original vintage Levi’s examples. I’m always on the hunt to find something special to add to my collection. I use these originals to create content, but also to inspire and educate people during my denim lectures. Part of my collection are the first rivets Levi’s produced, originals that were found most of the time in abandoned gold mines in Nevada.
The featured rivet was only used from 1873 until 1880, they were the first Levi’s rivets which were stamped with info on the burr. The burr is the decorative component and is typically on the outside of the garment. The rivet is the fastener and pierces the fabric from the inside. The first rivets made by Levi’s were made in the first year of their patent, so from 1873 to 1874, were plain without any info on them stamped. So, the featured rivets can also be named the seconds as they were the follow-up and if you look closely you will see the patent date ‘May – 1873’ on them. To be precise, ‘Pat. May 1873 LS & Co SF’. On this example, a part of the back pocket denim fabric is still attached which makes it very special and rare.
From 1880 until 1890, they used the same rivets but with bigger written info, like the one here shown above. I have a couple of them, all in different conditions.
Original Levi’s rivet from the 1870s with still a piece of denim fabric attached. This rivet shows smaller written info, more about it here.
The oldest pair of Levi’s 501 in my denim archive. This pair is from the early 1900s and was found in an abandoned gold mine in Nevada, USA, so worn by a gold miner. Read more of this historical pair here.
My First Pairs Of Levi’s 501
Personally, the Levi’s 501 came into my life at the age of 11, 12 years young during the mid-1980s. The time I just started at my high school. It was the time that Levi’s screened the now legendary tv-commercials like the ‘Laundry’ with singer and model Nick Kamen, ‘Bathtub’, ‘Parting’, ‘Pick-Up’, and so on. All these tv-commercials were mini-movies, all very nicely made and extra special with the picked songs for each. As a young kid, I never heard the music ‘A Wonderful World’ by Sam Cook and Marvin Gaye’s hit ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, but Levi’s educated me and my friends with these classics. I can clearly remember that I bought in 1991 the cd ‘The Hit Sound Of Levi’s 501’. This cd was a collection with all the songs that Levi’s used on their groundbreaking tv-commercials. A cd that I played over and over again in my portable Philips ghettoblaster. I still proudly own that cd after all those years, I always kept playing it and it takes me every time back to that period and it also gives me a bit of a nostalgic denim feeling.
As a kid, I wasn’t much of a student. I was more focused on skateboarding and hanging out with friends in the city. In high school, I never felt the urge to be active in class or score a good grade each time. What I did loved was going to the city with my family. I remember I used to go to Rambam, a local denim store in my hometown of Eindhoven, The Netherlands, with my two older brothers who were buying vinyl records at that time.
This authentic denim store, already open since 1974, sold both vinyls and jeans, most of which were Levi’s 501s, as it was in the mid-’80s. As I couldn’t afford the originals, I always scored the ones with a slightly twisted leg or a small factory error, which they also sold. I rocked those pairs each day until I couldn’t wear them because they were so trashed. I guess these were the first steps in my addiction to denim.
Fun fact, the Rambam is already one of my clients for many years. I create content for their socials, and I also organize the ‘Rambam Denim Days’ for them a couple of times per season. During these days, live denim activations are shown to show the craftsmanship behind jeans and denim initiatives.
Later, at the age of 12 to 14, I went to the Bergmans store in Belgium, just over the Dutch border from my hometown, to score Levi’s seconds. Back then, this was an army surplus store that was also selling huge amounts of Levi’s jeans for cheap prices. I owned a couple of pairs and was wearing them day and night.
My original copy of ‘The Hit Sound Of Levi’s 501’ from 1991.
An original 1960s kids example of Levi’s jeans, actually the 302 model. It features selvedge and a ‘Big E’ Red Tab.
The Starting Point Of My Denim Addiction
These childhood denim memories are the foundation of my denim addiction, and it all started with the Levi’s brand. That I still have a big blue heart for this brand can be seen in my denim archive as there are countless special and rare examples included that are part of their long history of denim.
There’re way too many special Levi’s pieces to highlight from my collection, but included in this article are just a few highlights, a few that a dear to me because of the history that is attached to them, or simply because they look great and beats my blue heart faster.
Big congrats to Levi’s for this special day! Keep on rocking, stay blue, and happy 501!
Original Levi’s 501 cut-off jeans from the 1940s, the World War 2 period. During this period, Levi’s printed their famous arcuate stitching on the back pockets to save material for war time. Read more about it here.
Original pair of Levi’s 501 jeans from the 1930s. It features a cinch back, crotch rivet and also a one-sided ‘Big E’ Red Tab, that was first introduced in 1936 on this model. Read more about it here.
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