Tag Archives: Latvian Jews

Jews of the Week: Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis

Inventors of Your Favourite Pants

Jacob Davis

Jakobs Jufess (1831-1908) was born in Riga, Latvia. He became a tailor before immigrating to the US at age 23. Upon arriving in New York, he changed his name to Jacob Davis and opened up a tailor shop. Over the next 15 years, he moved all across North America trying to make a living, spending time in Maine, California, Nevada, and British Columbia, working as a tobacco salesman, gold miner, and brewer. By 1869, Davis settled in Reno, Nevada and opened another tailor shop. His primary merchandise was originally tents, horse blankets, and wagon covers. To make his stuff stronger and more durable, he started using the toughest cotton denim he could find, which happened to come from a small dry goods store in San Francisco called Levi Strauss & Co.

Levi Strauss, the name behind Levi’s jeans.

Levi Strauss (1829-1902) was born in Buttenheim, Germany. When he was 18 years old, his family immigrated to the US, joining two older brothers that had settled in New York some years earlier. The brothers had set up a dry goods shop, and Levi went on to open a new store location in Louisville, Kentucky. During the California Gold Rush, the family saw opportunity in the West and opened another branch in San Francisco. Strauss headed that branch (together with his sister’s brother, David Stern), importing from his brothers in the East and selling high-quality merchandise at his Levi Strauss & Co. shop. He became very wealthy, and built San Francisco’s first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. Strauss gave generously to many charities, too, and his Levi Strauss Foundation donated to multiple orphanages and universities (including UC Berkeley). In 1871, Strauss received an offer from Jacob Davis to go into business together. Davis had designed a new type of work pants using blue denim and copper rivets to make the material extra strong. The first set of such “jeans” was custom-tailored for a lumberjack. Before long, everyone wanted a pair, and Davis couldn’t keep up with demand. Strauss helped Davis get the proper patents, and the two partnered up. To make his jeans distinct, Davis soon started to sew the back pockets with the now-ubiquitous orange double-stitch. Meanwhile, Strauss built a large jeans factory in San Francisco and Davis moved there to run the plant. Davis worked at the plant for the rest of his life, outfitting every miner, railroad worker, and cowboy with “Levi’s jeans”, his special pants. The modern jeans that Davis and Strauss brought to the world grew rapidly in popularity, first in the workforce, then among teenagers and “greasers” in the 50s and 60s, and today being the most popular type of pants in the world.

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Words of the Week

Few are guilty; all are responsible.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jew of the Week: Otto Orkin

Otto the Orkin Man

Otto Orkin (1885-1968) was born in Latvia to a traditional Jewish family that immigrated to Pennsylvania when he was three years old. The family settled on a farm, and Otto’s job as a child was to make sure the rats didn’t eat their stocks. The neighbours soon heard of his success, and asked the young Otto to take care of their pests, too. At 14, Otto borrowed 50 cents from his parents to invest in a supply of arsenic, and began experimenting to find the perfect blend of rat poison. He spent hours in attics and granaries watching rat behaviour and carefully studying them. The young Orkin became an expert at rat control, and began selling his services door-to-door. At 16, he founded his own pest control company, Orkin The Rat Man. He continued growing the business, travelling across the country to sell his revolutionary formulas and methods. In 1909, he found that Richmond, Virginia did not have a pest exterminator and settled there. In 1925, Orkin’s company won its first government contract to get rid of rats for the Army Corps of Engineers. During this time, he found that Atlanta, Georgia also did not have an exterminator, and soon moved his headquarters there, renaming the business to Orkin Exterminating Company. It was also during this time that he introduced the diamond-shaped logo now famous across North America. By 1930, Orkin had 13 permanent branches in 8 states, and fifteen years later 82 branches in 14 states. During World War II, Orkin played a huge role in assisting the war effort by providing chemicals and pest control, and making sure that over 150 military installations were sanitary. The company continued to grow, and by 1950 had over 1000 employees operating in 20 states. This rapid growth was partly fueled by Orkin’s famous generosity. He paid very good salaries and all of his managers made more money than he did himself. It was also fueled by great marketing, especially the popular “Otto the Orkin Man” TV commercial – thought to be the most recognizable jingle in America at the time. Unfortunately, Orkin’s sons soon sought to wrest control of the company from him. He eventually gave in and sold his shares. The company went downhill after that, and was bought out by Rollins Inc. in 1964. Orkin continued to be a generous philanthropist until his last days. Beloved by all those who knew him, one employee said of Orkin that he had “a singleness of purpose, a goal he never lost sight of, and he worked tirelessly and diligently to achieve that goal. His was the epitome of the American Dream we hear so much about. His contribution to the industry is inestimable.”

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Words of the Week

It is true that it is not a good situation for us, but when did we have it better? Now the oppressor is Hitler, once it was Haman, Pharaoh, Torquemada, Purishkevich—only the names change, but the suffering remains the same. It is possible that the troubles in the past were greater. When we compare the entire Jewish situation in the world to certain eras in Jewish history, it will emerge that Jews are now doing much better than in certain difficult eras of the past. There is no reason to despair.
– Rabbi Yosef Rosenthe Rogatchover Gaon