Levi's Overall Western ad, 1940s

Levi Strauss & Co. . . . Since 1850?

Tracey Panek, LS&Co. Historian
Levi Strauss & Co.
February 6, 2020

Next month Levi Strauss & Co. turns 167 years old. It’s a milestone marked by the date, March 1853, when 24-year-old Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco and founded his namesake business.

For the first 90 years or so of the company’s history, the tagline “Since 1853” could be found on company letterhead and in catalogs. But sometime around World War II, the line was changed to “Since 1850.” What prompted this date change and why did it endure for almost five decades? How this happened is still a mystery.

A timeline

Once Levi established his dry goods wholesale business in San Francisco in 1853, he spent years building up his company by connecting with retailers across the American West and the Pacific in places as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii and Yokohama, Japan. Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis received a patent on the riveting process in pants in 1873. By the 1880s, Levi and his managers began to create advertising designed to make sure consumers remembered that LS&Co. created the first, and best, men’s riveted trousers.

Vintage Levi's advertising sign

Innovative advertising, printed flyers and price lists with key messages like “Since 1853” were especially effective. Designing a distinctive trademark, the Two Horse in 1886, was another way to distinguish Levi’s® products. Salesmen carried these colorful brochures and price lists, distributing them on their travels. Around 1900, price lists became beautifully designed catalogs, which carried images of the vast array of “dry goods” the company still wholesaled. LS&Co. also began to paint the sides of buildings with the company name and advertising slogans all over the West.

Conveniently revising history

Sometime around the Second World War, the tagline mysteriously changed to “Since 1850” and this date was cemented into company and popular culture via the increased advertising of the postwar years. In 1950, Levi Strauss & Co. celebrated its “centennial.” Held at the factory on Valencia Street in San Francisco, with luminaries such as California Governor Earl Warren and Mayor Elmer Robinson in attendance, “1850” was considered the company’s birth date. Yet the timing conveniently coincided with California’s 100th anniversary.

Why was the founding date changed? Typographical errors in 19th-century newspaper articles are one explanation; another is a well-meaning decision to celebrate the company’s centennial the same year as the state of California.

It was not until the early 1990s, when the LS&Co. Archives staff researched this discrepancy and were able to prove that 1853 was the true founding date, that “Since 1853” was restored.

Whatever happened, the official and accurate founding date of 1853 now graces all the company’s printed and online materials.