Levi Strauss & Barney Dreyfuss

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Two German Jews - Two Kentucky Americans


Levi Strauss (1829-1902)

The word Levi in American usage refers to trousers even though it has a totally different meaning in Judaism. The reason for this was and continues to be the phenomenal success Levi Strauss achieved in selling his product to millions in America and around the world.

Levi Strauss came to America from Buttenheim in Germany at the age of 14 in 1843. On arrival he moved in with relatives in Louisville, Kentucky. That location seems a bit uncommon at this time. However, in the 19th century many German Jews moved to Kentucky together with German immigrants of other faiths.

When Levi was 20 years old, gold was discovered in California on the land of a Swiss-German immigrant named Sutter. The rumor about California gold spread quickly throughout the country and led thousands to rush to that state in the hope of becoming rich overnight. Some used covered wagons to travel nearly three thousand miles to the Golden State. Others used ships to travel around the tip of South America to reach California (California is not a Spanish word. The word was coined by the writer Carci de Montaldo who described a mythical, utopian land in his novel Califia in 1510).

Levi Strauss recognized at once that digging for gold was unlikely to provide the riches everyone sought. Instead he decided to supply the gold miners with supplies they would need. He therefore traveled to San Francisco and opened a clothing store there. He knew about the clothing business from his brothers Jonas and Louis, who owned such a store in New York.

Once arrived in San Francisco, Levi discovered that the tent canvass he stored sold faster than any of the other goods he had. This came about because the miners needed tough pants that would not tear. Of course, trousers made from sailcloth were already in vogue because they had been invented by Genoese sailors in the 16th century and were therefore called “jeans”, reflecting the name of the city in which they were invented.

Levi Strauss now began to make trousers from left-over canvas but later switched to heavyweight denim, which he and his brothers demonstrated in saloons. The customers began to call these trousers “Levis”. Strauss then decided to add copper rivets to the pants so that heavy tools could be carried. All of this led Levi Strauss to become one the earliest Jewish millionaires in this country.

He became the director of a bank and several insurance companies. He then established 28 scholarships in his name at the University of California and in addition supported numerous Jewish charities.

By 1941, when America entered the 2nd World War, so many American servicemen were wearing Levis that they became popular in other countries.

This year, in 2003, the Levi Strauss company celebrates its 125th anniversary. Now the company enjoys $7 billion in sales worldwide. With 25,000 employees, the company produces not only Levis and jeans but also other clothing items.

There is a museum in San Francisco which tells the history of Levi Strauss and the business he founded.

We all know that paper is made from the fiber of rags. Since all of us use money and traveler’s checks we are all using the scraps from Levi Strauss’s jeans manufacturing process. These items are largely manufactured by Crane and Co.  Crane uses Levi’s scraps and manufactures paper for money and checks from those scraps. The scraps are turned into a pulp which then is converted into stationery as well as money.

Therefore we are indebted to Levi Strauss, who came from Germany so long ago and made a name for himself among Americans and among Jews. He was and continues to be a blessing for all of us.


Barney Dreyfuss (1865-1932)

Barney Dreyfuss invented the World Series in 1903. Dreyfuss had come to the United States from Freiberg in Germany in 1881 when he was fifteen and settled in Paducah, Kentucky, as did so many Germans at that time.

There his family had entered the liquor business. Bernhard Dreifus, as he was then known, did so well in that business that soon he became part owner of the Louisville Colonels, a major league baseball club in those days. Then, in 1899 he bought the Pittsburgh Pirates, which he managed. He also assumed the business aspects of the team and scouted for new players all the time. His outstanding ability as a scout made it possible for the Pirates to win the National League pennant three years in a row. Then, in 1903 Dreyfuss proposed that his National League winners play the American League winners in a play-off series. This became an American tradition known today as the World Series. Therefore, this year marks the 100th year since the beginning of the World Series.

Dreyfuss proceeded to build Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in 1909. Forbes Field was the first modern baseball park capable of seating 25,000 fans. Until then it was assumed that no game could attract that many people. Since then, baseball has attracted far more fans than that, although football has now become America’s favorite sport.

These two men are only two examples of Jews who have contributed to our country. Many other Jews did the same. It can therefore be said without exaggeration that the Jewish contribution to American life has been far out of proportion to our numbers, as should be expected from us, the chosen people.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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