This year marks a century and a half since a young German Jewish immigrant named Levi Strauss settled in San Francisco, became an American citizen and opened a dry goods store.
It also marks 130 years since Strauss and an associate, Jacob Davis, took out a joint patent for “riveted waist-overalls” — heavy-duty work pants reinforced with metal rivets at the corners of pockets, the base of the fly and other stress points.
Today, we call their invention jeans.
A century after his death, Levi Strauss is a household name around the world. His invention has evolved from work trousers to fashion icon, becoming a symbol of freedom, youth, independence, pioneering spirit — and sometimes more than that.
It all started in Buttenheim, Germany, a sleepy market town in northern Bavaria near Bamberg, where Levi Strauss was born on Feb. 26, 1829.
Today, in the blue-trimmed, half-timbered house where he was born and raised, a museum honors Levi and what the museum calls “the most famous pair of trousers in the history of mankind.”
Opened in 2000, the Levi Strauss Museum, which has won several awards, is subtitled “Jeans and Cult.”
In less than three years it has attracted some 30,000 visitors from as far away as China to an out-of-the-way village of just 3,000. The only other attractions here are a pair of breweries, a baroque church and a rundown manor house.
“We are very surprised at the number of foreign visitors we get,” said the museum’s director, Tanja Roppelt. “Two days after we opened we already had visitors from Japan. There is nothing else in Buttenheim, so if people come here they are coming for this museum.”
The popularity of the museum bears vivid witness to the way jeans have conquered the world, Roppelt said.
“I would say that 95 percent of our visitors are wearing jeans,” she said. “Most of them come because they have worn jeans all their lives and want to see how they came into existence, how it all began.”
Pretty much no one in Buttenheim had any inkling that Strauss had been born here until 20 years ago, when a woman in Milwaukee organizing a festival about German immigrants wrote to the former mayor asking for information.
Local officials searching through Jewish birth and death records and emigration documents discovered that Strauss indeed had been born and lived his childhood in one of the oldest houses still standing in the village.
Town authorities purchased the dilapidated building, which dates from 1687, and eventually restored it as close to its original form as possible. A huge portrait of Strauss now looms out of an alleyway to mark the entrance, and a big Levi’s shop stands a few yards down the street.
The museum uses audio-guide headsets, videos and wall panel displays to recount the history of jeans and how they are made and marketed. It also includes a room full of glass cases exhibiting vintage Levi’s dating back decades.
Just as importantly, however, the museum traces the personal story of Levi Strauss himself, using an audio narration that presents much of the story as if seen through Strauss’ own eyes.
It tells the fascinating and little-known tale of 19th-century rural Jewish life in Bavaria as well as the epic saga of immigration to the United States.
Jews settled in Buttenheim in the 17th century. A synagogue was built there around 1740, and by 1810 Jews made up one-fifth of Buttenheim’s population. A Jewish cemetery was established on a low hill outside of town in 1819.
Strauss came from a typical Jewish family.
His father, Hirsch, was born in Buttenheim in 1790 and, like many other rural Jews, was a peddler, traveling house to house selling clothing and dry goods. Strauss’ grandfather, Jacob Strauss, was a cattle merchant — also a typical Jewish trade — and he, too, lived in the village.
Strauss — whose original first name was Loeb — was one of Hirsch Strauss’ three children by his second wife, Rebekka, who was the daughter of another Buttenheim cattle merchant.
By the time Strauss was born, poverty and restrictive legislation had prompted local Jews to begin to emigrate to the United States. The Jewish community, in fact, dwindled steadily until it dissolved in the 1890s — the synagogue went out of use in 1892 and has long since been incorporated into one of the local breweries.
Hirsch Strauss’ death in 1846 from tuberculosis prompted Rebekka to move to America the next year.
After an arduous voyage, she, Levi Strauss and his two sisters joined two of Strauss’ older half-brothers who already had emigrated and ran a dry goods business on New York’s Lower East Side. Strauss followed the lure of the California gold rush and founded the clothing business that made him both a wealthy man and a household name.
Today, the Levi Strauss Company employs some 20,000 workers in 69 countries.
As the museum puts it, Strauss “discovered his personal vein of gold — not the precious metal, but cloth.”
Strauss died in San Francisco in 1902, but he never forgot Buttenheim.
Toward the end of his life, he sent money back to maintain the town’s Jewish cemetery. The little walled graveyard still lies on a hill outside town amid lush, rolling farmland — and weathered tombstones there still mark the graves of Strauss father and a brother.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.