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Immigrant Entrepreneur Hall of Fame: Levi Strauss

  Country of origin: Germany Year came to U.S.: 1847 Business: Levi Strauss & Co. (1873) Headquarters: San Francisco, CA 2013 revenue: $4.7 billion Worldwide employment: 17,000 Ranked 496 in the 2011 Fortune 500  
  • Levi’s 501 jeans were born in San Francisco at the hands of two immigrants.
  • Strauss funded 28 scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley.
  Blue jeans are perhaps the quintessential American item of clothing, and they were invented by two immigrants: Jacob Davis of Latvia and the man whose name the jeans bear, Levi Strauss of Germany. Strauss, his mother and two of his sisters joined his older brothers in New York in 1847 after his father died. Brothers Jonas and Louis had already started a wholesale dry goods business where the younger Strauss began to learn the trade. When news of the California Gold Rush hit, Strauss decided that was the place for him to branch out and make his fortune. So in 1853, the year he became a U.S. citizen, Strauss traveled to San Francisco. First called simply Levi Strauss, his wholesale business imported dry goods like clothes, fabric and umbrellas and sold them to stores. Within a decade, Strauss had made a name for himself. He became active in the Jewish community, a mainstay in the business and cultural life of San Francisco, and a philanthropist. But it was in 1872 that Strauss’ fate would change. A tailor, Jacob Davis, wanted to patent with Strauss the metal rivets positioned at the points of strain in the pants he invented for customers especially the miners. Strauss loved the idea and began making riveted “waist overalls.” The famous 501 jeans, then known as “XX,” were born. Strauss became famous and rich. In 1897, he provided the funds for 28 scholarships at the University of California, Berkeley that are still in place more than a century later. When he died in 1902, the San Francisco Board of Trade said his philanthropy was an “enduring testimonial of his worth as a liberal, public citizen whose numberless unostentatious acts of charity, in which neither race nor creed were recognized, exemplified his broad and generous love for and sympathy with humanity.”
Updated July 2014
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