Name Spotlight: Levi
Levi is a classic biblical name. It is not, by and large, a classic English Christian name. Written as Levi or Levy and pronounced LEH-vee or LEE-vee, it comes across as distinctly Jewish to most American adults. But pronounce it LEE-viy and the name's image suddenly shifts. Over the past generation, the name's whole identity has made that shift -- a shift encompassing a rich American stew of history, geography, religion and culture.
For most of the 20th century, Levi kept a low profile. It didn't crack the top 200 nationally until the 1980s. The most telling pattern, though, isn't when Levi came back, but where. Take a look at this map, showing the states where Levi ranked among the top 100 boys' names 25 years ago:
You're looking at the modern frontier, American states with rugged terrain and mostly sparse population. All are overwhelmingly Christian. So why Levi in those regions? Because it's a "pioneer" name, one of the Old Testament men's names that conjure up a world of trappers, homesteaders and prospecters who ventured out to make their homes and fortunes in a rough and wild land. The name Levi is one of the pinnacles of that hard-scrabble style, thanks to Levi Strauss and his legendary jeans.
The tale of Levi Strauss is one of the best known origin stories in American business. It was the California gold rush, and young dry-goods purveyor Levi saw the toll that the 49ers' hard labor took on a regular pair of trousers. So he fashioned some tough work pants out of sailcloth with copper rivets at the pockets, and a nation had a new workwear uniform. The Levi Strauss company's frontier heritage is commemorated in the mule drivers on the label of my Levi's 512 mom jeans, and in the many young Levis living across the Mountain West.
So far, so good. But the first point to ponder in this tale is that the pioneer Levi who propelled the name's transformation to Christian rancher chic was himself a Jew. Levi Strauss was a paragon of the San Francisco Jewish community, a benefactor of Jewish causes and a member of the city's first synagogue.
The next intriguing tidbit is that Levi's famous work pants weren't actually invented in the 49er gold rush at all. Strauss was born in Bavaria in 1829, and emigrated to New York to join his brothers in the dry goods business in 1847. After five years in the family business he headed West, establishing his own successful dry-goods supply firm in San Francisco. In 1872 Strauss got a letter from a tailor who had devised a clever method of using rivets to strengthen work pants; he hoped that Strauss, by then a prominent businessman, would partner with him to patent and develop the idea. The two joined forces, and a clothing empire was born.
And one final item to put the whole Levi story in perspective: Levi's given name was Loeb Strauss. He restyled himself as the more American-sounding Levi after arriving in New York.
So there you have the story of Levi: a tale of enterprise, ingenuity, self-reinvention, ethnic mishmashing, and romantic mythologization. Is there any more American name?