By selling trousers to prospectors he earned more than the prospectors themselves
LEVI STRAUSS (1829-1902)
Levi Strauss was born Loeb Strauss in 1829 in the Bavarian village of Buttenheim, between Bamberg and Erlangen. In 1847, shortly after the death of his father, an itinerant merchant, he traveled to New York where two of his stepbrothers ran a textile business.
He worked for his brothers for two years. Gold was discovered in California in early 1848.
Believing that the pioneers of the Wild West needed a lot of canvas for their tents and covered wagons, he traveled by ship a year later – overland the journey would have taken eight months! — to San Francisco.
Once there, it turned out that the prospectors especially needed strong clothes. The trousers he initially made from tarpaulin (burat de Nîmes) chafed the skin, forcing him to look for softer fabric.
His relatives in New York provided him with trousers made of a strong cotton fabric (serge de Nîmes). Around 1866 he started making the trousers himself. In 1873, a Lithuanian immigrant sold him the idea of rivet reinforcement.
At that point, the jeans had almost acquired its classic shape.
Meanwhile, Levi's workshops in San Francisco not only cut and sew, but also spun, woven and dyed. In 1877, he founded the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, acquired a number of banks and firms, and built a business empire.
From 1890 he took four sons of his only sister into the business.
He himself remained single: 'I have to be able to work, my whole life consists of just doing business,' he said. According to a German romanticized biography from 1991, he had left his great love, a non-Jewish girl, in Germany in his youth.
After he had made a fortune, he wanted to bring her to America, but it turned out she was already married. According to the same source, a new girlfriend was killed in a shooting.
By 1891, when he was sixty, Strauss was one of the wealthiest men in California. He gave away hefty sums not only to the Jewish community, but also to Protestant and Catholic charities.
He also set up a fund for university scholarships, a foundation that still exists today. When he died in 1902, he left his sister's four sons, named Stern, with $6 million.
Flags in San Francisco's commercial district were flown at half-mast, and all members of the Commerce Chamber closed their doors during the funeral ceremony. His grave – a mausoleum – can still be seen in the Home of Peace Cemetery, Colma, San Mateo County in California.
Under the four brothers, the company collapsed. Only under Levi's grandson Walter Haas did the brewery come back to life from 1914. Haas (1889-1979) bought the jeans from the wholesaler and took the trousers to the textile shops.
He became president in 1928, a post he held until 1955. At his death in 1979, the company had annual sales of $2 billion. His son Peter, who is currently worth $1.6 billion according to the American weekly Forbes, ran the company from 1970 to 1980.
Today, after a hiatus from 1971 to 1985, the capital is once again completely in family hands