Although the Levi Strauss name is indelibly associated with copper-riveted jeans, it was Jacob W. Davis who first fabricated them at his Reno shop in 1871. After several legal battles, he and Strauss jointly won patent rights to the invention, and Davis supervised their manufacture in San Francisco until his death.
Born in the Russian port city of Riga (now the capital of Latvia) in 1831, Jacob Youphes immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-three and changed his name to Davis. He worked as a journeyman tailor in New York, Maine, and Northern California, but he gave every indication that he wanted to find a more profitable line of work. Davis panned for gold on the Fraser River in Canada, sold tobacco and wholesale pork in Virginia City, and settled in Reno in 1868, where he helped proprietor Frederick Hertlein build his Reno Brewery.
Davis' partnership with Hertlein lasted a year, and he turned to making tents, horse blankets, and other outdoor supplies for surveyors and teamsters working for the Central Pacific Railroad. His material was nine-ounce blue denim and ten-ounce white duck twill purchased from wholesaler Levi Strauss in San Francisco. When the wife of a laborer asked him to make a pair of sturdy pants in late December 1870, Davis used the duck cloth from Strauss and added rivets to strengthen the seams. Word of the new work pants traveled up and down the railroad line. Davis was soon selling his creation for $3.00 per pair, and he could not meet the growing demand.
According to a typed version (in dialect) of a letter allegedly written by Davis to Strauss in 1872, Davis paid a past due bill of $350.00, included blue and white samples of the 200 pairs he had made, and asked Strauss to take out a patent in Davis' name. It is to Strauss' credit that he did not take advantage of Davis, but rather mobilized the resources of his company to secure patent #139121 on May 20, 1873, in the name of Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss & Company. In the same year, Davis introduced onto the rear pocket of the jeans an orange-threaded double arc design to distinguish them from the work of competitors.
Davis had married Anna Packsher when the two were in Canada in 1865, and the couple had six children over the next eight years. The Davis family dwelling in Reno shared 4,620 square feet of space with the tailoring shop, located a half block south of the railroad tracks at what is now 221 North Virginia Street. When the patent was granted, Davis sold the Reno property to Levi Strauss for $1,000 and moved his family to San Francisco. Two years later, Strauss generously sold the Reno property back to Davis for $1, who, in turn, sold the property for a net profit of $1,699. There is no evidence that Davis ever returned to Nevada, but he retained his dues-paying membership in Virginia City's chapter of the International Order of B'nai B'rith until its demise in 1886.
Until his death in 1908, Davis supervised up to 450 employees at Levi Strauss & Company, producing a variety of riveted denim clothing that became an industry standard. Moreover, the man who once tried to make a living in a profession other than tailoring was listed in the San Francisco city directory as a "manufacturer." Davis' copper-riveted sensation was arguably the most enduring Nevada-based invention in the state's history. On May 20, 2006, Reno memorialized the achievement with a plaque mounted in front of Davis' North Virginia Street shop site.
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