Tuesday, March 20, 2012

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...

Levi Strauss, a Jewish-German immigrant, arrived in San Fransisco, Calif., in 1853 to oversee the west coast branch of his family's New York based dry goods company. Twenty years later, Strauss partnered with Nevada tailor Jacob Davis. They received a patent for the use of copper rivets to strengthen the pockets and seams of work pants in 1873 and began production of "waist overalls" (aka "pants") in brown and blue under the name Levi Strauss and Co.

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.


  1. ha, love this post. i usually get lost in the research (i don't have a short attention span... ooooo, look, bunny trails!)

    i'm a levi's or lee jeans girl. they fit better - don't know why. maybe because my shape is pretty much an 1850s woman, not modern day model woman.

    i love that you picture "penny" as Edna. loved her character. "she" was voiced by the film's director Brad Bird. he had an idea for what she should sound like, recorded a sample for his casting director and then they couldn't find anyone who could match what he envisioned. thus, he did the voice over work... (i know this because i'm an animator)

    oops, how's that for a bunny trail, side-track?

  2. Niki, blue jeans are my absolute favorite to wear. I wish I could wear them to work, because I'd wear them every day. My favs are Lee's. They fit me much better than Levi's for some reason.

    I had no idea they were called waist overalls. I'm glad Penny sent you down that bunny trail.

    I'm so familiar with bunny trails. I spend a lot of time hopping down them myself.

    DebH, thank you for the Edna info. quite interesting. So is the fact that you're an animator. Would you guest blog for us sometime and tell us about it?

  3. DebH, thanks for sharing that about Edna! I had no idea!

    Suzie, it took me reading and rereading the "waist overalls" description before I figured out they were talking about pants.

    Confession time: I love my denim overalls... full overalls. I'd wear them everyday if I could, even though they are a major fashion faux pas.

  4. In my newest manuscript I had my character faking a British accent in Virginia in 1817. But "Penny" kept popping up to ask if that was possible and if the accents were distinctive enough at that point. Ended up the Virginia Planter class still spoke with a fairly British accent. And to make matters worse, some of the upper crust Brits were using a drawl at that time similar to a Southern drawl. Ugh!

    I solved it by having her fake a Yorkshire accent instead, which would have been noticeable and recognizable but not low class. Whew. Crisis averted.

  5. Oh, an for blue jeans no specific preferred brand, although I bought two pairs of A.N.A. jeans recently which turned out great. I like skinny jeans with enough stretch that they stay fitted and don't sag as the days goes on. Or trouser jeans for dressing up. They go with my dressy flip flops. LOL.

  6. Oh, I LOVE Edna!

    And that's SO interesting about jeans/waist overalls/whatever. I knew they were around a long time, but I didn't really know the history.

    And, yes, they are my wardrobe of choice!

  7. Dina, I'm glad "Penny" is pestering you, too. : )

    I love skinny jeans, but haven't been able to find any that have a decent rise. Four babies later and my tummy needs to be tied up and tucked away somewhere.

    I envy your flip-flop wearing ability. I can't... the thong thing is murder on my toes.

  8. OK, Deanna, spill... WHAT KIND OF JEANS???

  9. Great Edna info, DebH. I love tidbits like that.

    Ladies, if you recall, DebH is the one who created my personal writing icon/brand for Woven Under Western Skies. I don't think I've ever asked her to blog... I just blogged about her when I published the post about my path from drawing to business card.

    So yeah, I'll back Suzie up... why don't you blog for us, DebH? I can attest that you're a great writer. :)

    My favourite jeans... don't laugh, but I've always hated that jeans dig into my gut and have a gap at the back of the waist. There's only one type I've found that don't have either of those and I wear them almost everywhere. They are the ones with ssshhh elastic at the waist LOL. They gotta have the elastic waist and big front pockets. There. now you know my secret. :D


  10. Anita, I saw some kind of easy trick to fix that all-too-common problem with jeans. I'll have to look for it and send you the link.
    Personally, I'm leaning toward wearing a lot of maxi skirts this summer because I'm tired of being pinched and compressed, and the size doesn't seem to make any difference. Just parts shifting around, I guess!

  11. Anita, that's basically the same reason I wear the stretchy skinny jeans. They're basically elastic all over. And normal jeans that fit me in the hips and rear dig into my waist/gut area.

  12. Niki, if you have a JCPenney by you, you should check out these A.N.A. jeans. They come about to my belly button. And they're only $20 a pair.

  13. Thanks, Dina! I will look for them. Like an Oreo cookie, I'm a bit soft and squishy in the middle. : )

  14. if you really think people would actually be interested, feel free to contact me. nm8r67 at hotmail dot com

    i've never had the honor of working on feature film animation - just the boring computer based training stuff (you know, the DVDs that come with items that supposedly instruct you on how to use them).

  15. Love the post, Niki! And I love Edna. I have a Penny, too. Now I'll picture her as Edna and I'll be more amused when she pops up.

    I found one brand of jeans that (currently) works for me. I know this won't sound popular, but I wouldn't mind at all if 1980s jeans came back--you know, it's hip for the waistband to sit closer to the actual waist, rather than at the bikini line.

  16. I have to say that where historically inaccuracies in novels are concerned I am hopelessly pedantic and incorrigible.

    My pet hates in terms of these those books in which the characters values, attitudes, views or beliefs are totally out of place, or the author had clealy imposed modern standards onto the setting.

    The second is errors of speech. I an not so obsessive as to expect authors to have thier characters speaking Middle English or somthign like that, but I find it hard to take seriously a historical novel that is crammed full of modern words, phrases and dare I say it, Americanisms (when the story is not set in America that is.)

    The latter to me suggests shoddy research (if any at all) and just make me cringe.

  17. As far as the Muse goes I think she might come into play at the Museum where I volunteer. Not many people ask me 'did they have that them' but I confess I do sometimes get the temptation to respond with a YES to even the most preposterous things.

    I guess that's my Mischievous streak....

  18. Dina

    Last time I looked, Yorkshire was part of Britain, and so a Yorkshire accent does count as 'British' methinks.

    Frankly I dont think there is such a thing as a 'British' accent because there is so much regional variation.

    Though I HATE those ludicrous stereotypical 'British' accents you see in the movies, mainly because nobody in Britain actually speaks like that or very few anyway.

    Why do the bad guys always have to have a 'British ' accent even when they're not British anyway.


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