- Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World by Lynn Downey
Lynn Downey's Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World provides a grounded and thoroughly researched biography of the famed nineteenth-century San Francisco businessman and German-Jewish [End Page 442] immigrant. While Strauss is commonly known as the inventor of blue jeans, the popular tales about Strauss, according to Downey, are shrouded in mythology and conflicting "facts." Whether identifying Strauss as a Kentucky rancher or a tent maker, these incorrect depictions of Strauss—many of which were created and perpetrated by the Levi Strauss & Company advertising department—"cloud his accomplishments and his flaws, reduce him to a smiling cardboard cutout, and obscure the true origins of blue jeans" (xii). What drives Downey's research is the imperative to correct the misunderstandings and in doing so to present a more accurate representation of Strauss.
As the in-house historian for Levi Strauss & Co. for 25 years, Downey was quite familiar with the methodological and epistemological challenges associated with the task she assumed: most of the company's early records and Strauss's personal possessions were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This led Downey to browse through newspaper collections and archives, visit Strauss's place of birth in Germany, and recreate his travels through Panama, all in an effort to clarify faulty biographic assumptions. Downey also drew upon an array of relevant secondary sources in order to foreground Strauss's life within a broader historical context and thus explain how general historical trends—whether related to the political climate and anti-Semitism, booming urban development, or the whims of the American economy—provided and limited opportunities for Strauss.
While Downey spends much of the book chronicling the genesis of blue jeans, she portrays Strauss as not just an entrepreneur but as a multi-faceted character and a renaissance man of sorts, spurred by a firm sense of individual initiative. Identifying the crucial role he played in developing nineteenth-century San Francisco into a dynamic and prosperous metropolis, Downey effectively makes the case that Strauss should also be recognized as a generous philanthropist, a strong-willed business and civic leader, and a pillar of the budding Jewish community. The book's strengths lie in its recounting of Strauss's wide range of activities and investments and illuminating of the ways in which his various priorities intersected and fueled one another. For example, Downey makes clear that Strauss's efforts to address the unemployment crisis in late 1870s San Francisco were partially driven by the belief that social stability and order was good for business.
Even so, Downey does not take full advantage of the biographical method. As the book is organized in strict chronological fashion, she misses the opportunity to weave together cohesively the thematic threads of Strauss's life. One such lingering question surrounds the seeming contradictions of Strauss's political worldview. In Chapter 12, Downey [End Page 443] explains that Strauss refused to hire Chinese workers, likely due to the assumption that Chinese newcomers were taking jobs away from whites and the belief that goods produced by white laborers were inherently superior and would thus lead to higher sales. Later in the book, Downey, however, notes that Strauss, despite the prejudices he held toward Chinese immigrants, called upon the United States Congress to vote against a bill (the Geary Act) that would effectively extend the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. A more sustained and nuanced analysis of Strauss's views could have shed light upon the ways in which commercial priorities and racialized fears evolved and helped to shape and delineate the varying attitudes among Jewish San Franciscans toward the Chinese. The same general criticism, that seemingly important social issues are not necessarily explored in great detail, also applies to Downey's examination of Strauss's involvement in Republican Party politics and intra-Jewish class tensions.
Ultimately, Downey's book does a fine job of sketching a nuanced portrait of...