The Levi Strauss & Co. Archives is always on the hunt for vintage clothing, advertising and photographs to add to its collections. A couple of years ago, I purchased a small collection of vintage paper, and lurking among the pages was the answer to a question lost in the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906.
LS&Co. launched a “value” version of its famous 501® jeans sometime around 1890. It was called a 201®, or “No. 2,” and was a bit cheaper than its more premium older brother. The company added this jean to the line because it knew that not every working man could afford the top of the line work pants. As the originator of “patent riveted clothing” in 1873, LS&Co. felt it was important to reach every consumer.
Like the 501® jean, the 201® jean was made with denim from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in New Hampshire, though it wasn’t the famous “XX” denim which gave the first blue jeans their name. It had a linen waistband label, instead of leather, and less expensive buttons. However, it did have the pure copper rivets in all the right places.
The jeans were discontinued around World War II, because the 501® jean had pretty much taken over the world.
However, no one knew when the company launched this product. We thought it was sometime at the end of the 19th century, but had no records to prove it, as everything was lost in 1906.
Then, thanks to a collection of documents I bought at a paper collectibles show, the mystery of when the 201® jean first made its appearance was solved. Among the fifteen miscellaneous items was a small group of documents sent by LS&Co. to J. Arata of Vallecito, California, in the state’s gold country. One of them was a pre-printed document sent with Mr. Arata’s latest bill for LS&Co.’s dry goods. Dated June 13, 1890, it also contained a hand-written note which said:
We have taken the liberty of adding to your order, a sample pair of our No. 2 riveted overalls at $7.00 per doz. This is the article that we have lately put in the market, and shall thank you to compare it carefully with any riveted overall that may be offered you, and oblige.
There it was: the date that the 201® jean was “lately put on the market.” It’s not exact, but this narrows the window considerably, and it was very exciting news for the archives staff. This document also shows us how rigorously the company defended its products against the competition, which was just starting to make its own version of the famous, and soon to be world famous, 501® jeans.