Levi Strauss, the man behind the world-renowned jeans empire, was a 25-year-old bachelor from an observant family in Europe when he arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Levi began as an ordinary dry goods merchant, but after helping secure a patent for a new kind of pants, designed by one of his customers, his business exploded. Nearly 175 years later, Levi’s is still at the top of the industry. How did he do it?
Growing up in Bavaria
Levi Strauss was born in Buttenheim, a village in Bavaria in the southern region of Germany. His father, Hirsch Strauss, had five children with his first wife. After she died, he married Rebekkah, who raised Hirsch’s older children along with the two they had together, Vogele and Levi (born Löb). Thanks to the Bavarian Jew Edict (Judenedikt) of 1813, ironically sometimes called the Emancipation Laws, Jews became citizens with full duties and some rights, such as freedom of worship. This meant their citizenship was now regularized, so they were no longer subject to the whims of a king, baron or mob. The edict also required Jews to take on German surnames, learn modern German (instead of Judendeutsch, the old German-Jewish dialect), and send their children to public schools.
Although Jews were essential to Bavarian commerce, the authorities did not want too many of them around. They included a draconian clause in the Judenedikt that allowed only the eldest son in a family to marry. This echoed the evil decree of Pharoah, aimed at limiting the Jewish population, and it led to an exodus of Jews from the region. Each town in Bavaria drew up a registry of Jews called a matrikel. If you weren’t the eldest son listed on the matrikel, you could not start a family. It was no wonder young Jews left villages like Buttenheim.
Today, Levi Strauss’ childhood home is a museum. To learn about his family and hometown, I visited the museum online as a guest of Dr. Tanja Roppelt, its director and archivist.
Levi’s father Hirsch was a peddler. Each Jewish peddler had his territory, called his medinah (borrowed from the Hebrew). A medinah could include a few farmers, an individual client or a whole village. Peddlers walked through their medinah on “Jew paths” during the week, traveling away from Buttenheim. They returned home in time for Shabbos.
The Strauss family lived near the shul, located in the center of the village. It had a mikvah on premises, but it had been paved over later on. Rabbi Uri Feist served the community for two decades starting in 1777, but when he moved to the larger city of Bamberg because of Buttenheim’s population decline, no one replaced him. The town had a shochet, “Hänla” Elchanan Lehrburger, who doubled as a melamed, and there was a Jewish cemetery. Levi attended the town’s public school and received his Jewish education in the afternoon.
The Jews of Buttenheim, including the Strauss family, were basically Orthodox. The Jewish population peaked at 200 around the year 1800, comprising about one-fifth of the general population; it fell to about half that in Levi Strauss’ lifetime. By the time the Nazis entered Buttenheim, there were only about 18 Jews still living there.
Leaving for America
Because of the Bavarian Jew Edict and the overall lack of opportunities, four of Levi’s stepsiblings left Germany. Two of them, Jonas and Louis, set up a dry goods business in New York in 1840-41. Back in Buttenheim, their father Hirsch died in 1846. The future looked bleak for Levi. He wanted to leave Bavaria with his mother, sister Vogele and stepsister Maila, but a family could not just pick up and sail away. The Strausses had to go through hoops in order to leave town.
Levi, then 18, and his mother carefully composed their request to emigrate. The translation of Rebekkah’s part of the letter reads: “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 and to seek my goal in that other part of the world.”
Levi added: “The favorable news that I have received from my stepbrothers in America has convinced me to follow them….Therefore, I will share the fate that has been assigned to me with them in foreign lands. I thus join my mother in her plea.” In his diplomatic message, he presented himself as a teenager without a father or a profession who did not want to be a burden on Buttenheim.
There were other hurdles to navigate. The Strausses had to leave a sum of money in the local poor box so that, if they did not succeed abroad and were forced to return, they would at least not tax the village resources. Levi also had to complete the required military service or pay someone to do it; his uncle paid the necessary sum. In addition, they had to publish notices that they would be leaving, in case there were any creditors claiming that the Strausses owed them money. They had to supply a clean police record, as well. Finally, the family received permission to leave.
It took weeks for Rebekkah, Levi, Vogele and Maila to reach the port of Bremen and sail to New York in 1848. They were greeted by Jonas and Louis, who had plugged into Manhattan’s kleinedeutschland, the neighborhood of German Jewish immigrants that later became known as the Lower East Side. In the years before their family members joined them, the brothers learned English, joined an Orthodox synagogue, and began selling various dry goods, such as blankets, pillows, linens, cloth, sundries and clothing. Now they put Levi to work learning English and the dry goods business. Levi is listed in the 1850 census as “Levy Strauss, D.G.” (dry goods).
Seeking a name that would be more familiar to Americans than the German “Löb,” he anglicized it to “Levy” and soon afterward to “Levi.”