Although blue jeans have become an American classic, they were not actually invented in America.
The fabric called “denim” was being made in France as early as the 1600s and being used by sailors in the navy of Genoa. In fact this is where the name “jeans” comes from – Genoa is pronounced “genes” in French.
But even before that a similar cloth called “dungaree” was being made in India just outside of Bombay. This fabric was made into rugged, long lasting clothing.
It was spread to Europe by Porguguese sailors who wore “dungarees” while plying their trade along the spice route between Europe and the Far East.
From these humble beginnings denim blue jeans were work clothes – ideal for working life in America as Europeans immigrants spread west in the 1700 and 1800s.
Life was hard in pioneeer America as men toiled on farms, in mines and in forests to carve out a new civilization. Denim was as close to an ideal fabric for work clothes as had yet been developed.
By the 1850s denim had already been used in work clothes for many years in America, and the fabric was commonly manufactured in North America at factories such as the Amoskeag Mill in Manchester, New Hampshire.
In those days the most common denim apparel was the bib overall, but with innovations introduced by the Levi Strauss Company in the mid 1850s, pants without the bib – called “waist overalls” – gained in popularity.
In spite of the rugged strength of denim fabric, workers wearing their jeans for farming, mining, forestry or other heavy jobs would often find them tearing at the pockets or in the crotch.
This led to the most important American innovation – the use of copper rivets to add strength to the points of stress where the pants were commonly tearing open.
The use of rivets was patented by Levi Strauss, and rivets on the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly became recognizable features of American jeans made by Levi Strauss in their mills in San Francisco.
This simple innovation gave Levi Strauss blue jeans unrivaled durability and within a very short time working men across North America were wearing them.
It wasn’t until the patent expired in the early 1890s that other companies were allowed to use rivets to reinforce their jeans. When that happened dozens of garment manufacturers began imitating the original Levi Straus design.
For another 50 years blue jeans served as the unofficial work pants of men and women toiling in manual labor jobs across North America. It wasn’t until the baby boom generation reached adolescence in the 1950s that blue jeans gained a new stature.
Along with television and rock and roll music, blue jeans became part of a the new youth-centered culture that dominates American life to this day.