Jacob Davis was a tailor who frequently purchased bolts of cloth made from hemp from Levi Strauss & Co.'s wholesale house. After one of Davis' customers kept purchasing cloth to reinforce torn pants, he had an idea to use copper rivets to reinforce the points of strain, such as on the pocket corners and at the base of the button fly. Davis did not have the required money to purchase a patent, so he wrote to Strauss suggesting that they go into business together. After Levi accepted Jacob's offer, on May 20, 1873, the two men received U.S. Patent 139,121 from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The patented rivet was later incorporated into the company's jean design and advertisements. Contrary to an advertising campaign suggesting that Levi Strauss sold his first jeans to gold miners during the California Gold Rush (which peaked in 1849), the manufacturing of denim overalls only began in the 1870s.
Levi Strauss started the business at the 90 Sacramento Street address in New York. He next moved the location to 62 Sacramento Street then 63 & 65 Sacramento Street. By changing the location of the store the company began to become more successful. Levi got the idea for the jeans, then referred to as "waist overalls," by Jacob Davis, one of Levi's regular customers. He said that by placing "metal rivets at the points of strain- pocket corners, and at the base of the button fly. The two men got together and got a patent for their idea and this is how the jean was invented.
Modern jeans began to appear in the 1920s, but sales were largely confined to the working people of the western United States, such as cowboys, lumberjacks, and railroad workers. Levi’s jeans apparently were first introduced to the East during the dude ranch craze of the 1930’s, when vacationing Easterners returned home with tales (and usually examples) of the hard-wearing pants with rivets. Another boost came in World War II, when blue jeans were declared an essential commodity and were sold only to people engaged in defense work. From a company with fifteen salespeople, two plants, and almost no business east of the Mississippi in 1946, the organization grew in thirty years to include a sales force of more than 22,000, with 50 plants and offices in 35 countries.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Levi's jeans became popular among a wide range of youth subcultures, including greasers, mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads. Levi's popular shrink-to-fit 501s were sold in a unique sizing arrangement; the indicated size was related to the size of the jeans prior to shrinking, and the shrinkage was substantial. The company still produces these unshrunk, uniquely sized jeans, and they are still Levi's number one selling product. Although popular lore (abetted by company marketing) holds that the original design remains unaltered, this is not the case: the company's president got too close to a campfire, and the rivet at the bottom of the crotch conducted the fire's heat too well; the offending rivet, which is depicted in old advertisements, was removed.
 1990s and later
By the 1990s, the brand was facing competition from other brands and cheaper products from overseas, and began accelerating the pace of its US factory closures and its use of offshore subcontracting agreements. In 1991, Levi Strauss faced a scandal involving six subsidiary factories on the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth, where some 3% of Levi's jeans sold annually with the Made in the USA label were shown to have been made by Chinese laborers under what the United States Department of Labor called "slavelike" conditions. Today, Levis jeans are made overseas.
Cited for sub-minimum wages, seven-day work weeks with 12-hour shifts, poor living conditions and other indignities, Tan Holdings Corporation, Levi Strauss' Marianas subcontractor, paid what were then the largest fines in US labor history, distributing more than $9 million in restitution to some 1,200 employees. Levi Strauss claimed no knowledge of the offenses, then severed ties to the Tan family and instituted labor reforms and inspection practices in its offshore facilities.
The activist group Fuerza Unida (United Force) was formed following the January 1990 closure of a plant in San Antonio, Texas, in which 1,150 seamstresses (primarily Latinas) — some of whom had worked for Levi Strauss for decades — saw their jobs exported to Costa Rica. During the mid and late 1990s, Fuerza Unida picketed the Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins in protest of the company's labor policies.
The company took on multi-billion dollar debt in February 1996 to help finance a series of leveraged stock buyouts among family members. Shares in Levi Strauss stock are not publicly traded; the firm is today owned almost entirely by indirect descendants and relatives of Levi Strauss, whose four nephews inherited the San Francisco dry goods firm after their uncle's death in 1902. The corporation's bonds are traded publicly, as are shares of the company's Japanese affiliate, Levi Strauss Japan K.K.
In June 1996, the company offered to pay its workers an unusual dividend of up to $750 million in six years' time, having halted an employee stock plan at the time of the internal family buyout. However, the company failed to make cash flow targets, and no worker dividends were paid. In 2002, Levi Strauss began a close business collaboration with Wal-Mart, producing a special line of "Signature" jeans and other clothes for exclusive sale in Wal-Mart stores until 2006. Levi Strauss Signature jeans can now be purchased at several stores in the US, Canada, India and Japan