Jacob W. Davis was working in 1870 in his tailor shop on South Virginia Street in Reno when a woman came in to find out if he could make an inexpensive yet strong pair of pants for her husband.
Davis said he could. He did -- and he changed men's pants in a way that lasts to this day and gained worldwide popularity.
Davis learned his tailoring trade in his birthplace, Riga, Latvia, which was then part of the Russian empire. When he was 23 years old, he came to New York, but he didn't stay long. He kept changing his jobs, always looking for a different way to make a living.
In 1856, he was in San Francisco and then he went to Western Canada to pan for gold on the Fraser River. He met Annie Parksher, a German immigrant, and married her. In the 1860s, he was again on the move, this time to Virginia City, Nev., where he ran a tobacco store.
Finally, in 1867, he and Annie and their children moved to Reno. He took up tailoring again, making tents, horse blankets wagon covers, buying tough duck cloth from Levi Strauss in San Francisco.
Teamsters, who had been Davis' customers for horse blankets, bought pants. Within 18 months he had made about 200 pairs of pants.
He decided he should patent his idea, but he didn't have the $68 it took to apply. So he contacted Strauss, who was a very astute businessman. Together they applied for the patent for riveted pants. The patent was granted in May 1873. Davis moved to San Francisco and went to work for Strauss, overseeing the pants-making.
How it came about that Davis made that first pair of pants is documented in a circuit court suit. Davis and Strauss sued A.B. Elfelt in 1874 for $200,000, claiming an infringement on their patent rights. They won the case, but got $20,000 in damages.
On June 17, 1874, Davis told how he came to make that first pair of pants in a deposition now on file at the National Archives.
"He was a large man, sick with dropsy (edema), could not get a pair of pants in the stores to fit him. He lived across the railroad track from my place. He was a poor laboring man. He had a wife. ... She wanted to send him to chop some wood, but he had no pants to put on."
Davis said that, of course, he could make the make the pants and asked the woman to send her husband so he could take the measurements.
It turned out that the man couldn't come in because he had no pants to wear. So the wife took the measurements with a string that she knotted to show how big to make the waist and how long to make the pant leg.
It was while he was sewing the pants that his eyes darted to his table and saw copper rivets that he used on the horse blankets. He attached them to the strategic points on the pants, charged the woman $3 -- and that is how Levi jeans came to be.
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