Historical Heroes in Blue Jeans
by Niki Turner
Hard at work on a historical novella, I outfitted my hero in a pair of faded, form-fitting, button-fly Levi's 501 blue jeans. Hm. Nice. And then my annoying little fact-checking muse popped up to ask, "Did they even HAVE Levi's 501s back then? What would that cowboy really have been wearing?"
Sometimes I hate my fact-checking muse. Besides her resemblance to Edna from "The Incredibles," she's a pest; always questioning things the way 3-year-olds demand 'why?' At the same time, I know how disconcerting it is to read a story filled with inaccuracies that could have been avoided by responding to the muse (let's call her Penny, because she needs a name).
In response to Penny's question, I started digging into the history of blue jeans. Dear heaven, what did we do before we had the Internet? Grumble all you want about social networking and email stealing our time, I remember what it was like to rummage through a card catalog, dig into those bound indices of periodical literature, and wait for inter-library loan materials to arrive, via parcel post, to be picked up at the library.Thanks to the Internet, I can access the history of denim and blue jeans at the click of my mouse, complete with pictures. (Spoiled, we are.)
Oddly, although we now tend to use the terms "denim" and "jean" interchangeably, the words originally referred to completely different kinds of fabric. It would take almost a century before "jeans" meant denim and denim meant "jeans."
And now we come to the point where Penny's innocent question becomes a meandering journey through irrelevant (but, oh, so interesting) tidbits of history. Research is dangerous, my friends. Set aside a few hours of writing time, pause to satisfy Penny, and find yourself still in your robe and jammies, with fuzzy teeth and tangled hair, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Try explaining to a non-writer why you have been at your computer ALL DAY and have only written 237 words. Yeah.
Anyway, back to the jeans...
The popularity of their product grew rapidly. After Strauss's death, his four nephews took over the company that bore their uncle's name. By 1912, the company was distributing its first nationally-marketed product, a one-piece playsuit for children called "Koveralls."
Do you see how easy it is to get lost in the details?
Anyway... can my 1894 hunky hero work on the ranch in a pair of Levi's button-fly britches? Yep. They would have even been referred to as 501's, thanks to the lot number on the rivets. But he would have called them waist-overalls, and they would have looked a little different than what we see today.
"The pants - called “waist overalls” - have one back pocket with the Arcuate stitching design, a watch pocket, a cinch, suspender buttons and a rivet in the crotch."(The Arcuate stitching refers to the gullwing-shaped embroidery on the back pocket. During WWII rationing, the famous shape was painted on the pockets to save thread.)
While Strauss's waist-overalls were originally marketed to the miners in the gold fields of the west, by the 1930's, the company embraced the cowboy as their "brand" of choice. Levi's would be followed by "Lee" (1889) and "Wrangler" (1944) and "Carhartt" (1889) and any number of copycats, from Calvin Klein to Jordache. Levi's, however, are the uncontested original.
And Penny, my fact-checking muse, is satisfied, I hope, at least for the moment.
Silly question: What's your preferred brand of blue jeans, if you wear them?
Serious question: Are you a "fact-checker" like Penny? Do you check out the things you read, hear or think and compare them to the Truth? (See Acts 17:10-11 for an example of Biblical fact-checkers.)
About the Author: Niki writes fiction, blog posts, articles in the local newspaper, grocery lists, and Facebook status updates. She can be found at her own blog, In Truer Ink, in addition to posting here. She was a 2009 finalist in the Faith, Hope, and Love "Touched by Love" contest.