Rare, historic garments preserved by Levi Strauss & Co.

Levi Strauss & Co. corporate headquarters

Editor’s Note:  Editor Donald H. Harrison and his grandson Shor recently completed a 2,000 mile journey through California and Nevada, collecting and photographing Jewish stories along the way.  This article is the fourth in a series generated during that trip.

Story by Donald H. Harrison; Photos by Shor M. Masori

Donald H. Harrison

Shor M. Masori

SAN FRANCISCO – In the vault of the Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters, there is a safe in which historic garments are carefully wrapped in linen and preserved as part of the company’s remarkable history.  Before handling the garments, employees put on cotton gloves so they do not soil them.

Tracey Panek, the company’s historian, believes the most valuable piece of clothing in the collection is a pair of work pants that “we believe to be the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world.” Identifying the pair of jeans as having been made in 1879 was a case of solid detective work.  Yet, for my money, even more exciting is a far more contemporary leather jacket manufactured by Levi Strauss & Co. approximately in the 1930s.  It had regularly been worn by Albert Einstein – in fact he appears on a cover of Time magazine wearing it – and the jacket still smells of his pipe smoke.

Panek shared the stories of these two garments—and others—during our visit to the archives at the headquarters building at 1155 Battery Street, where a ground floor museum and gift shop may be visited by the public.

Albert Einstein’s leather jacket

Time magazine cover showing Einstein wearing the leather jacket made by Levi Strauss & Co.

The Einstein leather jacket was acquired for the archives earlier this year  – a case of both serendipity and solid research.  Panek had been in London to discuss the provision of some Levi’s from the 1960s to the Victoria and Albert Museum for an exhibition on that tumultuous decade.  She happened to note that Christie’s was having an auction of such items as an original Bach manuscript, an illuminated manuscript from the 1400s, and yes, the Einstein jacket.

She telephoned her company headquarters in San Francisco, and obtained permission to bid at the auction.  On the day before it started Christie’s allowed her to inspect the jacket to make certain it was in fact manufactured by Levi Strauss & Co.  It was.

“When you go into Christie’s, it is like a museum, so they have the pieces on display.”  On auction day, “you are in the room, the auctioneer is in front.  All the people there are in chairs, while on the left hand side there are telephones, and in the back is a great big screen for anyone bidding on line.  Just before the jacket came up for bid, the Bach manuscript sold for over two million British pounds.  My heart was beating fast.”

In the Levi Strauss archives with the jacket is the paddle that Panek used to make the winning bid of 90,000 British pounds, to which was added Christie’s fee and a Value Added Tax (VAT).  The total cost to Levi Strauss & Co . to reunite with a jacket it had made during the 1930s was approximately U.S. $150,000.  Panek did not know how much the jacket had sold for originally but clearly the Nobel Prize winning physicist famous for his Theory of Relativity had added a great deal of value to it.

“He was a genius,” commented Panek.  “Of course we spell that ‘jean-ius.’  We laugh and joke a bit, thinking there has to be a little DNA from the oil of his hair around.”

The aroma of pipe smoke is another enjoyable aspect of the jacket because “Einstein was known to smoke a pipe regularly and if you get close you can take a whiff.”

His jacket smelled like a combination of pipe tobacco and leather.

Panek holds a master’s degree in history from UC Berkeley.  Before joining Levi Strauss & Co., she was a corporate historian for AirTouch, which later became Verizon, and also for Triple A, the American Automobile Association.  As they were also headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area, “a lot of the events that affected these other companies affected Levi Strauss.”

The detective work that went into identifying jeans as having been manufactured in 1879 involved several clues.  One of the most obvious clues was that the waist overalls (as Levi’s then were called) had only one back pocket. Levi Strauss & Co. didn’t add a second pocket in the back until 1901.

Another clue was that the rivets that strengthened the pockets and the bottom of the button fly were stamped with the patent date of 1873.  When the patent expired in 1890, Levi Strauss discontinued the stamping of the rivets.  So that meant that the pants had been manufactured sometime between 1873 and 1890.

Oldest known pair of blue jeans in the world

Other factors that helped the company narrow down the date included the type of indigo with which the pants had been dyed, and the pattern of stitching on the inside seams of the pants legs.  Another clue was that the pants didn’t have belt loops but instead had a cinch in the back for tightening.   Furthermore there were two buttons at the waist for the attachment of suspenders.

Until pants made even earlier, say in 1873, can be found, these jeans will continue to be treated with a special reverence in the Levi Strauss & Co. archives.  “We consider this priceless,” she said.  “We can’t replace it!”

Other garments also have stories, one of which involves a teenage girl who during the 1940s climbed through an abandoned mine in the Mojave Desert and found a box of worn jeans.  She sorted through them and kept the one she thought was the best, wearing it to school over the next several years.  One day, that teenager who is now  nonagenarian Barbara Hunter Keplon, visited Levi Strauss & Co. and offered to donate the jeans for the archives.  The company declined the donation, insisting upon trading the jeans for $25 and two new pair of jeans.

Harrison is editor and Masori is a staff photographer for San Diego Jewish World.  They may be contacted via [email protected] and [email protected]


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