Book Review: Jeans of the Old West, by Michael Allen Harris

Jeans of the Old West: A History, by Michael Allen Harris, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa., 2010, $34.99

There’s nothing like a pair of old jeans—especially ones that have been around for more than 130 years. As the San Francisco madam might have said to the prospector just down from the high Sierras, “Are those gold nuggets in your Levis, or are you just glad to see me?” But she wouldn’t have said that in the early years of the California Gold Rush. The Forty-Niners wore less satisfactory work pants, mostly shipped from the East. But by the early 1870s, San Francisco–based Levi Strauss & Co. was selling more riveted jeans than any other kind of trousers. Jacob Davis of Reno, Nev., was actually the first tailor to make riveted denim jeans, but Levi Strauss had the foresight to hire Davis as his foreman and to patent the popular brand in 1873, forcing competitors to find other means of reinforcing work pants. Jacob Greenebaum sewed leather triangles over the pocket corners. David Neustadter used a double thickness of material on the inside of pocket tops. Still, all the other jean makers were delighted when the Levi Strauss patent ran out in 1890, and they, too, could make riveted “miners’ denim.”

Author Michael Allen Harris writes about the inventors and manufacturers of strengthened work pants, from the well-known Levi Strauss to the almost forgotten Yung Chow. More than 300 illustrations, including some of rare pre-1873 jeans, accompany the text. Levi Strauss bought one of its own pair of 1890s jeans at auction for $50,000, Harris says. So there just could be gold in them thar old jeans. As for Harris’ book, it will wear well on any bookshelf.

—Editor

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