Levi’s are usually associated with the 19th-century San Francisco firm of Levi Strauss & Co., which made the famous, blue, copper-riveted “waist overalls,” as pants were originally known, and sold them to miners in the gold fields of California. When introduced in 1873, the pants were labeled as “XX”, which was a textile-industry designation for fabric of the highest quality. By 1890, the jeans were named after their lot number, 501.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Levi products—from jeans to jackets to shirts—were not sold east of the Mississippi River until the 1950s. Still, throughout its history, Levi’s had strong connections to the east coast, thanks to the fact that its sources of cotton duck and blue denim were based there.
The company’s first supplier of denim was the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company of New Hampshire, whose fabric was designed for the wear and tear of outdoor work. By 1922, Levi was buying all of its denim from Cone Mills of North Carolina.
For collectors of vintage jeans, Levi’s 501s are a rich category. The first pants featured buttons for suspenders and copper rivets at the pockets (in the beginning, there was only one pocket in the back). By 1886, a leather patch with a picture of a pair of horses trying to pull the pants apart was sewn onto the back of the pants at the waist. A second back pocket was added in about 1901 and belt loops appeared in 1922—the pants would sport both loops and suspender buttons until 1937.
In the 1930s, Hollywood stoked the nationwide demand for Levi’s as stars from John Wayne to Cary Cooper to Bing Crosby wore the apparel at work (in other words, in the movies) or at play. By the end of the decade, Levi’s was marketing a complete line of “Dude Ranch Duds” for men and women.
The push east in the 1950s caused changes to the now-famous 501s. For example, until 1954, all Levi’s 501s had button-up flies, but as the brand moved into New England and the Southeast, customers there demanded zippers so a 501Z was introduced. That was also the year Levi’s introduced its classic Sawtooth shirt, so named for the jagged shape of the stitching on the shirt’s breast pockets.
The red tab on a pair of 501s’ right-back pocket is another way of dating a pair of Levi’s. When these tabs first appeared in 1936, the word “LEVI’S” was stitched into the tab. T...
Other landmarks in Levi’s history include the introduction of pre-shrunk Levi’s in 1963 and the enshrinement of a pair of 501s in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in 1964.