Who Was Levi Strauss?
On March 14, 1853, Levi Strauss stepped off a steamship and onto a dock in San Francisco. At that time, most of California was still wild and untamed. But San Francisco was growing fast. Levi was one of thirty--four thousand immigrants to arrive by ship that year. The city was bustling. Theaters, saloons, and supply stores lined the walkways leading to the waterfront. The air smelled of salt and fish from the ocean. Sounds of ship horns blasted through the streets, as people crowded around the docks to buy everything from food to lumber and steel.
Back in New York, Levi had sold clothes and sewing materials with his brothers at J. Strauss & Brother. But now, he set his sights farther, wider. He was coming to California to expand his business.
When he arrived, Levi looked like the other businessmen. He stood five feet six inches tall, had dark hair and a big beard. He wore black pants, a black vest, jacket, and a bow tie—-the style most businessmen wore at the time. Levi blended in with the crowd.
Why were so many people flocking to San Francisco? Gold had been discovered in California in 1848. People were racing west to try to make their fortune. Levi, though, wasn’t one of these gold seekers. Instead, Levi knew gold miners needed sturdy clothes—-especially pants—-to wear while they worked in the dusty riverbeds. Levi planned to sell them rugged, long--lasting pants, but he didn’t know how in--demand they would become.
Levi’s jeans first became very popular with miners, but today nearly everybody wears them. More than one billion pairs of jeans are sold around the world every year. They are still made in a similar style, with the same denim material used so long ago. The pants that Levi Strauss made for workingmen are still a fashion favorite today! Chapter 1 Life in Bavaria
Levi Strauss was born Loeb Strauss on February 26, 1829, in Buttenheim, Bavaria. His parents were Hirsch and Rebecca Strauss. Loeb was the youngest of seven children. Five of them were from his father’s first marriage. Hirsch was a hardworking door--to--door salesman, who sold sewing supplies such as fabric, thread, and buttons. Rebecca stayed at home and took care of the children. The Strauss family lived in a cramped space on the first floor of a house that only had a large living room, a kitchen, and one bedroom.
The Strauss family was a close and loving one. The children were taught to help and look out for one another. The family was Jewish. Loeb’s childhood was filled with going to HebrewSchool (a school for Jewish children), helping his mother with chores, and playing with hisbrothers and sisters and his cousins, who also lived in the same town. Sidebar: Bavaria
Bavaria is one of the sixteen states of Germany. It has a population of more than twelve million, and is located in the southeastern part of the country. In the 1800s, Bavaria was a kingdom in the Germanic Confederation (what Germany was called at the time). When Loeb was born, it was ruled by King Ludwig I and about four million people lived there.
Bavaria’s capital city is Munich. It is Germany’s third--largest city. In September or October, Munich hosts a giant fair called Oktoberfest that lasts sixteen to eighteen days. People come from all over the world to drink and eat, ride on amusement rides, play games, and listen to music. The city has been hosting a festival like this almost every fall since 1810.
Most people in Bavaria were Roman Catholic, but the Strausses were Jewish. Many people there hated Loeb’s family and other Jewish people just because of their religion. Government rules made life even worse for the Strauss family and all Jewish people there. They were told where they had to live and where they could work. Jewish people were not allowed to vote, and had to pay more taxes to the government than non--Jewish citizens. No matter how much money Hirsch made, the government took a lot of it.
In 1840, when Loeb was eleven, his older brother Jonathan moved to New York City. Another older brother, Lippmann, followed in 1841. People from all over Europe were coming to New York at this time. The city was bustling with jobs and opportunities. New York offered lots of different ways for people to make a living. In 1824 the Erie Canal had opened. The canal was a 363--mile waterway that connected the Hudson River to Lake Erie. This made it much easier to get goods to people living in America’s Midwest. This meant New York manufacturers could make things such as clothing and furniture and ship them out to the middle of the country. As a result, new New York businesses were popping up every day. And the Strauss brothers wanted to open a business, too.
Soon after Lippmann joined Jonathan in the United States, they opened a small store in New York City called J. Strauss & Brother. They sold sewing supplies, but unlike their father, they didn’t have to travel at all. They had a store, and customers came to them instead. In fact, the Strauss brothers called themselves store--princes. They felt rich and royal compared to the way traveling salesmen worked.
Back in Bavaria, Loeb saw how difficult the job was for his father, especially carrying his things—-which could weigh as much as seventy pounds—-in a bag on his back. The work made his father weak and sick. In 1846, when Loeb was seventeen, Hirsch died from tuberculosis, a disease that affects the lungs. The Strauss family had struggled to make enough money when Hirsch was alive. Now, they struggled even more.
Loeb was worried about his family, and especially about his mother. He felt like no matter how hard they worked, they could never make ends meet. He wanted to work hard like his father. But Loeb also wanted to work hard in a place where his efforts would be rewarded.
At this time, “America fever” was spreading throughout the Jewish population in Bavaria. Everybody wanted to go to America. They thought they had a much better chance to make money in America than they ever could in Bavaria. They wanted a better life. Thousands of Bavarian Jewish people had already fled their country. The Strauss family decided it was time to move to America, too. At this time, Loeb’s mother had to ask permission from the Bavarian government to leave. She couldn’t leave without asking them first. In a letter to the government, Rebecca wrote: “My sons who are located in America have landed on their feet. For, according to their letters, they are successfully engaged in business. I have therefore decided to emigrate with my remaining children to seek my goal in that other part of the world.”
It took more than a year, but the Strauss family was finally granted permission to leave Bavaria. They were coming to America to make better lives for themselves. Chapter 2: Coming to America
Loeb, his mother, and two of his sisters, Voegela and Maila, set sail to America in the winter of 1848. Loeb was nineteen years old. The trip took several weeks. They traveled in the lower decks of the ship. This was the only kind of ticket poor people could afford. But this made the trip very hard. The ocean waves felt rough, especially from the lower decks. Many people suffered seasickness. There was not enough food to eat or water to drink. People in these lower decks—-called steerage—-never bathed during the voyage. By the end of the trip, the whole ship smelled of filth and rotten food. Some people died of disease during the journey.
After many weeks, the ship arrived in New York City. The passengers disembarked on the East Side of Manhattan. The docks were loud, crowded, and busy. Ships were arriving from all over the world
with immigrants and goods such as fabric, lumber, and coal. People were buying and selling clothes, furniture, and even musical instruments all day and night along the docks. Not far from the docks, new buildings were being built. There were markets filled with meat and cheeses, and brand--new stores like the one Loeb’s brothers had opened to sell fabric. The Strauss family was tired from their difficult journey, but felt lucky to have reached their new home.
The family moved in with Jonathan and Lippmann, sharing their small New York apartment, called a tenement. Sidebar: Tenement Living
During the entire nineteenth century, immigrants flocked to New York City. They were looking for a better life than they had in their own countries. So many people came, in fact, that there were not enough places for them to live once they arrived. To solve this problem, many low--rise, four--story buildings on the Lower East Side of the city were turned into six to eight apartments, called tenements.
Many families who lived in tenements faced terrible living conditions. These cramped apartments were often made from cheap materials and had little to no indoor plumbing. And because of poor ventilation, tenements also had bad air quality. This resulted in disasters like fires, and left people at risk of catching many diseases that spread rapidly.
By 1900, 70 percent of New York’s entire population (more than two million people) lived in tenement housing. Laws were eventually passed to make tenements safer places to live.
Loeb went to work with his brothers at the family store in the same neighborhood as their apartment on the Lower East Side. The three brothers worked long hours buying and selling dry goods, items like coats, pants, hats, buttons, thread, and fabric to make clothes. Loeb was now known by his Hebrew name, Levi. Levi sounded more American, and was easier to pronounce for non--German-speaking people who came to shop at the store. Levi’s brothers and sisters also changed their names. Jonathan was now called Jonas, and Lippmann was called Louis. Voegela was now Fanny, and Maila became known as Mary.
Life in New York was better for Levi than it had been in Bavaria. The family was reunited. They had enough to eat. Their neighborhood was called Kleindeutchland (Little Germany) because so many German immigrants had settled there. Unlike in Germany, however, the US government didn’t tell Jewish people, or other immigrant groups, where they could live. They were free.
Copyright © 2021 by Ellen Labrecque; Illustrated by Stephen Marchesi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.