Living History: Blue jeans, the pants that won the West
Whether its roots were sprouted in blu di genova in Genoa, Italy, or serge de Nimes in southern France, blue jeans and denims are as American as apple pie and ice cream.
In 1789, small East Coast cotton mills were already weaving the iconic textiles and fostering a cottage industry for local women. By the late 1800s, New England and North Carolina mills were heralded among the largest denim producers in the country. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, denim bolts traveled west to manufacturers such as Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco and the overall factory operated by Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) in Salt Lake City.
From small beginnings in a building behind the ZCMI establishment to the top floor of the former Eagle Emporium built by William Jennings, the early 1881 clothing plant hummed with 60-80 employees.
Quickly outgrowing its space, the firm moved to a factory on South Temple equipped with labor-saving machinery. By the turn of the century, historian Leonard J. Arrington wrote, "more than 750,000 yards of denim were made" into clothing.
Although today's jeans and denims are thought of as one and the same, they differ. Traditional jean fabrics are woven with two identical color threads and used to make fine, tailored trousers. Denim is tightly woven cotton twill in which indigo-dyed warp threads run lengthwise with white weft threads running across, resulting in greater fabric strength and durability. "Mountaineer Strong-Seam Overalls" with reinforced pockets and signature-embossed buttons were among ZCMI's most popular denims.
According to a reporter in the July 1927 edition of The Utah Payroll Builder, published by the Utah Manufacturers Association, the Salt Lake clothing factory handled nearly 600 bales of denim every year.
Delivered in burlap, one bale of the heavy blue textile consisted of 18 bolts, each representing 50-60 yards of denim. Placed on a table over 100 feet long workers unfolded the denim into layers of 30-yard strips, one on top of the other, stretched and smoothed out. Cardboard patterns were fitted snug on top and traced with chalk, and the sharp, steel blade of a fast electric cutter was set into motion.
"It reminded us of a portable, electric fan," the reporter wrote. "As the machine is steadily pushed and guided, the cutting edge of the knife works its way through the thick pile of cloth along the chalk lines, almost as if it were passing through cheese. Each round of a chalk line makes 144 pieces ready to be sewed into overalls."
Tied into bundles of two dozen apiece, the cloth was shuttled down chutes into a large room that sounded like "darting insects" but were 70 whirring electric-powered Singer, Standard or Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines running 1,100 stitches or more a minute.
At one station, pockets were sewn onto bibs by an operator's "few dexterous twists" and a machine's "four short, quick buzzes."
In other areas, overall pockets were stitched into place, the front to the back and then the legs. "One machine bands the backs, another runs the long inseams and side seams, and another hems the bottoms," the reporter wrote. "Some make three seams at a time."
Nearing completion, shoulder straps were sewn and buckles added. Automatic riveting machines fastened copper or black rivets to reinforce weak areas. Every minute eight buttonholes were cut and every minute 16 buttons were sewn. By the day's end, 3,600 buttons were set in place.
Saying, "Time is money," factory superintendent George McAllister showed the reporter standby equipment ensuring continuous garment making.
Once the overalls passed final inspection, they were taken to a large storeroom, folded, stacked and tallied. Coupons with bottom-clip labels tracked a worker's daily progress. In 1927, inexperienced workers earned $1.60 a day. Experienced operators made over $4.
That July, 10,000 garments were made, and demand in the Intermountain West for the rugged overalls just kept growing.
Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.