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