Lynn Downey: The historian of Levi-Strauss Jeans

Historians in the News

Lynn Downey lives for yesterday.

As the historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, she has spent 17 years retracing the company's past, which dates to 1853, when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss opened a wholesale dry-goods business, selling merchandise to general stores throughout the West.

It has been Downey's job to chronicle how the company got from there to here over 153 years. At Levi's, she oversees a vast collection of records, in the form of clothing, photographs, oral history tapes or letters from customers.

The archives, open to company employees only, are lined with large filing cabinets containing old retail catalogs and company newsletters, as well the rare signature of Strauss himself, countersigned on the back of a check. There are posters of past Levi's advertisements and the cover of Bruce Springsteen's album "Born in the U.S.A.," in which the singer wears a pair of Levi's.

"Anything we did yesterday is history," Downey said. "We archive our history. We archive everything we can get."

Levi's archives were created in 1989 at the behest of Bob Haas, the company's chairman and great-great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss. Downey started with 200 pieces of clothing when she came on board. Today, the archives house more than 5,000 pieces of clothing, 400 linear feet of documents, 750 linear feet of marketing materials, 4,500 photographs, 500 posters and 300 artifacts.

Quake ruined headquarters

About 10 percent of the collection is from the late 19th century, "and I'm grateful for every piece," Downey said. Like most archives, Levi's has a substantial backlog of items that have not yet been cataloged.

But the backlog does not include much of the company's materials before the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed Levi's headquarters on Battery Street in the Financial District. All the records stored in the building since 1866 burned in fires that followed the earthquake, save a handful of ledgers that some employees threw into a vault before they fled.

Gone are the documents that would have revealed the evolution of the world's original blue jeans, which Strauss patented with business partner Jacob Davis in 1872. Although Downey has reams of information on the years after the earthquake, she still laments what she cannot have.

"There is so much of our company we'll never know because it was all lost," she said. "I've been trying 17 years to fill those blanks."...
Read entire article at San Francisco Chronicle

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