Asked & Answered | Levi Strauss & Co. Part II

It doesn’t get better for me than Levi’s, and meeting with Lynn Downey the Levi Strauss & Co. archivist and historian was an interesting an informative glimpse into the history of one of America’s most iconic companies. The second half of our conversation is below.

A pair of vintage jeans c.1901-1922 from the Levi Strauss & Co. archives

ACL: What was the highest amount you have paid for a pair of Levi’s?

Lynn Downey: The most we have ever paid was $46,532 and that was for the “Nevada Jean” which is – it’s not a 501 – it’s like a carpenter jean from the 1880s. It has a pocket for a folding ruler on the left thigh. Somebody found them in Nevada somewhere, and because we lost everything in 1906 in the earthquake and fire in San Francisco we didn’t know the original name or lot number, so we just decided to call them the Nevada Jeans, because they were found in Nevada.

ACL: The people that worked in the mines would wear the jeans – and the duck pants especially – over their regular clothes. Is that why these old jeans are found in mines?

LD: Yeah, because they [the mine workers] would leave them behind in the dressing room. That’s why jeans were originally called overalls, because you would wear them over your clothes. That pair [the Nevada Jean] was found somewhere in a Nevada mining town – I don’t know where – because it was an anonymous auction and we won that on eBay for $46,532 … I was authorized to spend more than that, but I was really glad it came in under my budget, but I would have bought those jeans no matter what!

ACL: Did you find that auction naturally through eBay or did they come to you before hand?

LD: They came to me to authenticate the jeans before they went up, Bonhams & Butterfields was the auction house and they came to see me.

The most valuable jean in the world we do own; it is the oldest 501 in the world from about 1879 and it is called “double X,” which is the original name for the 501.

A pair of vintage jeans c.1901-1922 from the Levi Strauss & Co. archives

ACL: Double X stands for “extra strong”?

LD: It either means “extra strong” or “double extra heavy,” it was the designation that Amoskeag (the original denim supplier to Levi’s from New Hampshire) gave for the denim that we used in the jean. I bought those as part of a small collection in 2003 and the jeans are valued at over $150,000.

ACL: That is big bucks. So you aren’t allowed to wear those out are you?

LD: [Laughing] They don’t fit me!

ACL: So are a lot of the archive pieces really small?

LD: Yeah they are. Its funny because a lot of the pieces that are still found are actually kind of normal size, but if you look at all of our old catalogs we literally had all of the sizes that we have today. We had 40 waist, 35 inch waist for example, 36 inch length, even in 1904. It’s amazing.

ACL: So you are here in New York City on a research trip, what are you researching?

LD: The life of Levi Strauss, it is my next book, I’m writing his biography. He came through here in the 1840s. Not only did we lose all of our business records in the earthquake and fire of 1906, all of the personal records of Levi Strauss’ life were also destroyed. So it has literally take the entire 20 years of my career to amass enough information to begin writing. So I am here in New York doing contextual research about what it was like to be a Jewish immigrant in Little Germany in the 1840s and 1850s.

ACL: Did you ever see any other company archivists for businesses like Levi’s? I’m sure there has to be a formal organization, but are you friends with someone like the Coca-Cola archivist or people like that?

LD: Oh yeah, The Society of American Archivists. One of my very good friends is a gentleman named Bob Chandler and he is the historian for Wells Fargo bank in San Francisco. Wells Fargo was founded a year before Levi’s and he has been there for thirty years. I also know the Disney archivist, know the Coca-Cola archivist, there are a lot of business archives in the United States. However, our collection is the only clothing company that is out there. I know that there are a lot of Brooks Brothers materials out there – Brooks Brothers dates back to 1818 – I don’t know if they have formal archives but I think they did at one point.

The thing about Levi’s is, that it was one of the original “gold rush” businesses along with Wells Fargo bank, Boudin bakery and Ghirardelli chocolate – what else do you need? Chocolate, french bread, jeans and a place to put your money!

A 1915 Levi's retail catalog featuring men's khaki pants.

LD: A Lot of people may not know about Levi’s Khakis heritage. Dockers was created in 1986, but Levi’s has been making khakis off-and-on for over a hundred years. This is a 1915 retailer catalog and the khakis were not worn or sold as workwear, but were very fine office wear. Tthe Dockers designers have been living in the archives, going through all of the old khakis for inspiration.

Levi’s began making khakis in 1905 but it wasn’t as consistent as denim, but when people moved off of the farm and into an office and to service jobs and they needed something to wear. And then in the 1950s, a lot of young men whose brothers had gone to WWII saw their older brothers coming back and wearing their military issue khakis and they emulated them, so there was this huge resurgence in khaki pants. So as a response Levi’s created something called “Tab Twills,” which was a khaki that could be worn to work, but they were also for college students. A lot of service men after the war that were used to wearing khakis were going to college on the GI Bill. Even if you look at pictures of Jack Kerouac from that time, he’s not in 501 jeans, he is in used khakis that must have come from a second hand store.


This pair of khakis below (the oldest in the Levi's archive) was found in an abandoned mine out west. Originally worn for work in an office, this pair had a second life doing hard labor.


Khaki Pant

Asked & Answered with Levi Strauss & Co. part I can be seen here.

Comments on “Asked & Answered | Levi Strauss & Co. Part II

    George on September 17, 2009 5:43 AM:

    Your posts on Levi’s definitely stir up my interest in the brand again. Especially the LVC line. Thanks for the quality work on ACL.

    nick on September 17, 2009 7:17 AM:

    Brooks Brothers does have formal archives, but they are outsourced to a company called The History Factory. They are located in Northern Virginia. Not uncommon.

    erin on September 17, 2009 8:08 AM:

    If you’re interested in clothing history, there are many non-business archives that probably have things related to the history of clothing, as well. Many of the papers of small businesses were collected by special collections or manuscripts departments at universities or historical societies when they went out of business or changed hands (hooray for archives and archivists! I guess I can say that since I am one).

    Chris on September 17, 2009 8:43 AM:

    Love the khaki/WWII story. Terrific info as usual MW.

    dan on September 17, 2009 8:46 AM:

    Did you mean the jeans were really big as opposed to really small since they were indeed worn over regular clothes?

    “ACL: And jeans from that time were supposed to be worn over your regular clothes, so are a lot of the archive pieces really small?”

    Michael Williams on September 17, 2009 8:57 AM:

    I simplified it so it makes more sense. I was trying to say that the jeans didn’t fit her (jumping to the conclusion that they are too small) and then thinking that they must have really been small if they were to be worn over other clothes. Anyway, it makes more sense now. —ACL

    james on September 17, 2009 10:26 AM:

    Love this. Fascinating.

    It would be neat if there were captions for the pictures though — I’m not sure whether to assume the pics are the jeans you’re talking about in the interview right around them, or just random pictures of old jeans…

    Michael Williams on September 17, 2009 10:31 AM:

    The jeans pictured are discussed in part I and are not related to what we discuss in this post. I’ll update the captions. —ACL

    HolThaDo on September 17, 2009 12:52 PM:

    Is Lynn Downey hot? She sounds hot.

    james/10engines on September 17, 2009 2:24 PM:

    HTD that is a completely unsportsman like question… She does look sort of cute though zing!

    Mitchell on September 17, 2009 3:45 PM:

    Fascinating post. I found the interview really informative; especially the khaki anecdote.

    Lowell on September 17, 2009 4:44 PM:

    “one of America’s most iconic companies”

    who no longer makes products in America. Typical.

    HolThaDo on September 17, 2009 7:53 PM:

    Is that her on the right James? Rowr me likey.

    Jack on September 18, 2009 12:57 AM:

    This is some seriously priceless info. Especially the information on the levi’s khaki’s, anyone else want them to release a pair of “Jack Kerouac” repro Khakis?

    Andrea on September 18, 2009 1:41 AM:

    Huh. So somebody other than I might care about the mint 1921 Jos Banks tail coat and trousers I picked up a few years ago? That’s encouraging, since my 401k is still mostly a joke.

    jaeve on September 18, 2009 2:07 AM:

    fascinating. makes me want to rummage through some thrift stores to find a pair to sell for a pretty penny. $46k? that’s insane.

    james/10engines on September 18, 2009 9:01 AM:

    HTD aaaaaa i needed that. brilliant.

    J Stew Bop on September 18, 2009 10:13 AM:

    Some companies heavily use their archives for insight today. For example, The History Factory helps Brooks Brothers leverage their rich history to revitalize their brand to better speak to today’s customers. Every U.S. President since Abe Lincoln has owned a Brooks Brothers suit (Abe Lincoln was also shot in his Brooks suit), and The History Factory teaches Brooks’ salesmen how to use facts like these to increase sales. Levi’s could do better if they hired a consultant to fully invest and leverage their history for competitive advantage. Look at the current Macy’s ads. Levi’s is pissing away a proud heritage by not fully taking the steps to properly invest in it.

    Michael Williams on September 18, 2009 10:51 AM:

    J Stew – Do you work for The History Factory? —ACL

    nick on September 18, 2009 1:59 PM:

    I too was really excited by the LVC jeans. They sound great but I can’t seem to find them anywhere (except mail order from Germany!). I was told by Levis customer representatives that LVC jeans are now only sold at J Crew. However there seems to be a bit of contention about the quality and source of them:

    It is so sad that an iconic American product is not available in America.

    Frede on September 20, 2009 7:35 AM:

    J.Crew do their own take on a 1947 with big E yet they are not a part of the LVC line that they also carry in certain shops such as the Men’s Shop on Broadway and the The Liquor Store.

    ChessGuy on September 25, 2009 5:16 PM:

    Growing up, all I wore was Levi’s. They were commodities that my mother would buy on sale at local retailers. We’d toss them into the washer and dryer after (nearly) every wearing, wear the heck out of them, and they never, ever wore out. I could hardly even put holes in mine! (My brother could, though.) And, of course, they were made in America.

    I don’t wear jeans anymore, but would like some for yardwork, camping, etc. Why can’t I have reasonably-priced, American-made Levi’s for that? It’s both sad and frustrating.

    Shaun Pantaleon on October 2, 2009 5:24 PM:

    I’m really glad the story of the “Nevada jeans” was touched upon. I remember reading about it in an issue in the NY Times magazine a couple years back alongside someone telling me the story at a shop on W. Bway that many are aware of. After years of searching and obtaining “the perfect pr. of LEVI’S” (U.S. made); I wonder how come LEVI’S currently does not manufacture the majority of their product in the U.S. (other than the obvious; low cost production in out sourcing).

Comments are closed.