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Culture

Buttenheim: The Birthplace of an American Icon

The legends surrounding the creator of the world’s most famous jeans are well-known. But what isn’t is the fact that Levi Strauss was born in southern Germany. A museum in his birth-place hopes to change that.

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Levi Strauss' birthplace in Buttenheim, Germany, is now a museum


The stories of the birth of the quintessentially American blue jeans have achieved an almost myth-like status.

From the heady days of the California Gold Rush of 1849 to Levi Strauss’ move to the wild west armed with a supply of canvas, needles, thread and scissors. From Strauss' search for the perfect sturdy overalls for the miners labouring in the gold mines to the creation of the first riveted pants made of serge de Nimes or denim - the legends of ruggedness and innovation have come to embody the American dream.

Tracing Levi Strauss to southern Germany

But few know that the man behind the world’s most famous jeans was born on the other side of the Atlantic - in a village in southern Germany between the cities of Bamberg and Nuremberg. Not even the 3,000 inhabitants of upper-Franconian Buttenheim, knew that their village could lay claim to such a famous son till almost 20 years ago.

In 1983 historians stumbled upon Levi Strauss’ name in the Jewish birth register of the village. Further research led them to Strauss’ home where he spent his first 18 years with his parents and six siblings.

Born in Buttenheim on February 26, 1829, Strauss was the son of a Jewish salesman, who sold his wares of scarves and other assorted items from door to door and just about managed to sustain his nine-member family. After the death of his father in 1846, Strauss’ mother decided to emigrate to America the following year with her three youngest children. That’s where Levi Strauss invented his iconic blue jeans and the rest, as they say, is history.

Keeping the memory of Strauss’ origins alive

But despite catching on late to the legend of Levi Strauss, the village of Buttenheim has been quick to capitalise on the global popularity of their most famous citizen.

In 1987, authorities in Buttenheim decided to preserve the memory of their most famous citizen, especially Strauss’ early years spent in their village. They bought Strauss’ crumbling half-timbered family house, painstakingly restored it and turned it into a museum two years ago dedicated to the life and invention of Löb Strauss as he was originally known.

This week the Levi Strauss Museum Jeans & Cult in the idyllic Buttenheim quietly remembers the 100th birth anniversary of the legendary inventor whose name is almost synonymous with jeans today.

Visitors to the museum can get a peep into the life of Levi Strauss from the time of his birth to his emigration to America on the ground floor of the former Strauss residence with the help of graphics, photo documentation and audio material.

Die-hard Levis-wearers can educate themselves on the origins of their beloved jeans on a floor dedicated to the world of denim and indigo. Right from Strauss’ early creations of sturdy riveted workpants guaranteed to withstand the most arduous strain to his flagship Levi’s 501 jeans stitched in 1890, the visitor can get a feel of how the world’s most famous jeans came into being.

Besides Levis jeans, the Strauss museum in Buttenheim also provides insights into the development of the general denim industry and the techniques involved in dying and treating the material. Undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibition is the "original jeans" from 1890, the legendary 501 from a private collection.

Mecca for Levis fans

Much like Elvis Presley’s house in Graceland, the modest museum in Buttenheim has become a Mecca for the world-wide Levis fan-group. Some 12,000 fans travel here every year to find out more about the history of the jeans gracing their legs.

The museum is also one of the last remaining remnants from the life of the man who created the greatest icon of American culture. A huge earthquake in 1906 in San Francisco wiped out Levi Strauss’ company and production factories in San Francisco.