The Rivet That Shook The Industry

The patent of the rivet represents maybe one of the most important milestones within the history of denim. The patent of the rivet is seen by many as the starting point of how we know blue jeans today. It was this very little copper rivet with a diameter of just 9.6mm that shook the industry. Rivets are made of two components, the head and the tack.

Next to being a smart tool to strengthen your pair of jeans, the rivet is also a perfect branding element for your jeans. An opportunity to highlight your brand name, but also a perfect tool to distinguish yourself as a brand from others with the shape of the rivet.

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How It All Started

Originally, the rivet was patented by Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis on the 20th of May in 1873. The reason why the American denim brand Levi’s is celebrating its 150-year anniversary this year all over the world with special events, store activations, and releasing all kinds of limited-edition pairs of 501s. These special pairs are made with their special anniversary rivet, showing the original rivet patent year, 1873, and also the year 2023.

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Levi’s 150-year celebration rivet, showing the original rivet patent year, 1873, and also the year 2023.

The Origin Of The Rivets

When the Reno, Nevada-based tailor Jacob Davis came up with the idea in 1871-2 to use rivets to strengthen pants on weak points, he could never imagine that his idea would become such an important element. In fact, it became one of the most important parts of a pair of jeans.

It all started when (mostly) women came into his atelier with the question if he could fix their husband’s pants. Most of the time these pants were ripped at the pockets as their men were putting rocks of gold and silver in them as a miner during their long shifts. At the end of the day, these pockets weren’t made to carry so many of these rocks and ripped in the end.

With just a simple nail that Jacob Davis used to strengthen horse blankets (that’s how the myth goes) he could save the pants most of the time and extend the lifetime of it. Soon, he received so much positive feedback with this spontaneous idea, that he thought, this could be something big. So, he reached out to his supplier Levi Strauss, who served him with fabrics and so on back in the day, if he would be interested in patenting his idea together. The roughly $68,- to pay for the patent was a huge amount, so he needed a financial partner who could join him. The rest is history…

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.

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Original Levi’s rivet, used from 1874 until 1880, with denim fabric attached.

The Different Kinds Of Rivets

Although jeans aren’t made (and worn) as miner pants anymore, the rivet is still an important design element on a pair of jeans (or jacket). It may be seen as a decorative part, but it still strengthens your jeans in several places of course.

Most rivets are more or less the same when it comes to measurements, and are also most of the time round-shaped. But, still, there are many options to make it your own as a denim brand, branding-wise, but also color-wise and protection-wise for your furniture, (leather) saddles, and so on. Let’s highlight the rivets of the so-called ‘Big 3’ American denim brands: Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler. And, also some other brands to see the differences.

The Levi’s Rivet

The rivet was used for the first time in 1873. The first rivets by the American denim brand were unbranded, so without any info written on it. It was the year 1874 when the first rivets were produced with info: ‘Pat. May 1873 LS & Co SF’. From 1880 until 1890, they used the same rivets but with bigger written info. And, when their rivet patent expired after 1890, they used ‘LS & Co SF’ on their rivets as everyone was allowed to copy them and make their own versions.

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Original Levi’s rivet with small written info, used from 1874 until 1880.

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Original Levi’s with bigger written info, used from 1880 until 1890.

In 1937, Levi’s introduced their so-called ‘hidden rivets‘ on the inside of their pairs of 501’s. These hidden rivets replaced the earlier exposed rivets after many complained that these original rivets scratched too much furniture. With the release of the ‘hidden rivets’, each pair of Levi’s 501s produced from 1937 (and later) was a pocket flasher attached with the words: ‘The Rivet’s Still There’ as an introduction.

Hidden rivets on the back pockets of a pair of 1940’s Levi’s jeans.

In 1966, Levi’s changed their ‘hidden rivets’ into bar tacks on their jeans. Technology made it possible to strengthen the back pockets with bar tacks instead of rivets. This was the end of complaints about scratching furniture. Note that the ‘hidden rivets’ came through the denim fabric after intense wear, so bar tacks were the perfect solution.

You can read the full story of the first Levi’s rivets here.

The Levi’s rivets used nowadays are known as the ‘nipple rivet’, which can be seen here below.

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The ‘nipple rivet’ on a pair of 1980s Levi’s jeans.

The Lee Rivet

Lee doesn’t use rivets on their back pockets, this is to prevent scratching of furniture and leather saddles. This is as they created their pairs of jeans with Cowboys in mind in the first place. To skip the rivet on the back pockets, they came up with their so-called ‘X-Tacks’, a smart solution by stitching an X as reinforcement on the corners of the back pockets. But, the front pockets (earlier models featured crotch rivets too) are reinforced with their branded Lee rivets. The rivets are flat, also called ‘Bull’s rivets’ sometimes, so that you don’t get any trouble with them while wearing your pair of Lee jeans.

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‘X Tack’ on the corner of a back pocket on a 1950s pair of Lee jeans.

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The Lee ‘Bull’s eye rivet on a 1960s pair.

The Wrangler Rivet

When the Wrangler brand was launched in 1947 in Greensboro, North Carolina, it was mainly focused on the Western lifestyle. Their jeans were designed by celebrity tailor Rodeo Ben with functionality features with cowboys in mind, so also the rivets. This 11MW pair is nowadays known as the ‘Proto Type’ amongst vintage denim collectors. A very rare collectors piece. More about this pair here.

One of the key details was (and still is today), their ‘flat rivets’. These flat rivets on the back pockets wouldn’t scratch your leather horse saddle, a huge complaint by horseriders back then. Nowadays, each pair of Wrangler jeans still features their unique shaped rivets.

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Wrangler’s flat rivet on a 1950s pair.

Other Versions Of The Rivets

There are many design options as it comes to rivets as you can see with the ‘Big 3’ American denim brands. Of course, there are way more options to use on jeans. You can embosse them with your brand for example, but you can also do an inlay in the rivet with a small stone. There are also domed versions on the market, the same as UFO rivets, and the inverted nipple rivet is used often too. An authentic version is the ‘peek-a-boo’ rivet. This is a rivet where the denim fabric is coming out a bit on the front. Very popular with many denim enthusiasts.

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Example of an UFO rivet on a 1930s pair of unbranded jeans.

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Example of a ‘peek-a-boo’rivet.

Rivets Are A Personal Preference

Some people prefer a certain rivet just by its shape, finish, color, branding, or whatever. It’s a very personal thing. But as said, it can be a perfect tool to make yourself different from other denim brands when starting your own brand. In the end, there’s no good or bad, it’s about a person’s taste, just like the fit, washing, or the denim brand in general. Next time you are wearing your jeans, just take a closer look at the rivets of your favorite denim brand!

Written by Wouter Munnichs
I'm the founder of Long John. Next to running this daily magazine, I'm working as a freelance denim specialist for the industry. Titled as 'Denim Influencer 2020' by Rivet 50. Celebrated my 10th anniversary with Long John in 2021.