Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis receive patent for blue jeans On this day in 1873, San Francisco businessman Levi Strauss and Reno, Nevada, tailor Jacob Davis are given a patent to create work pants reinforced with metal rivets, marking the birth of one of the world’s most famous garments: blue jeans. In San Francisco, Strauss established a wholesale dry goods business under his own name and worked as the West Coast representative of his family’s firm. His new business imported clothing, fabric and other dry goods to sell in the small stores opening all over California and other Western states to supply the rapidly expanding communities of gold miners and other settlers. By 1866, Strauss had moved his company to expanded headquarters and was a well-known businessman and supporter of the Jewish community in San Francisco. Jacob Davis, a tailor in Reno, Nevada, was one of Levi Strauss’ regular customers. In 1872, he wrote a letter to Strauss about his method of making work pants with metal rivets on the stress points–at the corners of the pockets and the base of the button fly–to make them stronger. As Davis didn’t have the money for the necessary paperwork, he suggested that Strauss provide the funds and that the two men get the patent together. Strauss agreed enthusiastically, and the patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”–the innovation that would produce blue jeans as we know them–was granted to both men on May 20, 1873. Strauss brought Davis to San Francisco to oversee the first manufacturing facility for “waist overalls,” as the original jeans were known. At first they employed seamstresses working out of their homes, but by the 1880s, Strauss had opened his own factory. The famous 501 brand jean—known until 1890 as “XX”—was soon a bestseller, and the company grew quickly. By the 1920s, Levi’s denim waist overalls were the top-selling men’s work pant in the United States. As decades passed, the craze only grew, and now blue jeans are worn by men and women, young and old, around the world. 1862 The Homestead Act In a milestone in the settlement of the American West, President Abraham Lincoln signs into law the Homestead Act, a program designed to grant public land to small farmers at low cost. The act gave 160 acres of land to any applicant who was the head of a household and 21 years or older, provided that the person settled on the land for five years and then paid a small filing fee. If settlers wished to obtain title earlier, they could do so after six months by paying $1.25 an acre. The Homestead Act was first proposed in the 1850s, but Southern congressmen feared that the settlement of the West by small farmers would create an agricultural alternative to the Southern slave system. In 1858, a homestead bill was defeated by only one vote in the Senate, and in 1859 a bill was passed in both houses but vetoed by President James Buchanan. Passage of the bill was high on President Lincoln’s agenda, and the loss of Southern congressmen in the secession removed most of the bill’s congressional opposition. The president signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862. By the end of the Civil War, some 15,000 land claims had been made. Most homesteaders were experienced farmers from the crowded east or Europe. By 1900, 600,000 claims had been made for some 80 million acres of public land. Although numerous claims continued to be made into the 20th century, the mechanization of American agriculture in the 1930s and 1940s led to the replacement of individual homesteads with a smaller number of much larger farms. 1506 Christopher Columbus dies On May 20, 1506, the great Italian explorer Christopher Columbus dies in Valladolid, Spain. Columbus was the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century. He explored the West Indies, South America, and Central America, but died a disappointed man, feeling he had been mistreated by his patron, King Ferdinand of Spain. Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. Little is known of his early life, but he worked as a seaman and then a sailing entrepreneur. He became obsessed with the possibility of pioneering a western sea route to Cathay (China), India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia. At the time, Europeans knew no direct sea route to southern Asia, and the route via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed to Europeans by the Ottoman Empire, as were many land routes. Contrary to popular legend, educated Europeans of Columbus’ day did believe that the world was round, as argued by St. Isidore in the seventh century. However, Columbus, and most others, underestimated the world’s size, calculating that East Asia must lie approximately where North America sits on the globe (they did not yet know that the Pacific Ocean existed). With only the Atlantic Ocean, he thought, lying between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back his “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called his plan. He was rebuffed and went to Spain, where he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory, agreed to support his voyage. On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain, with three small ships, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina. On October 12, the expedition sighted land, probably Watling Island in the Bahamas, and went ashore the same day, claiming it for Spain. Later that month, Columbus sighted Cuba, which he thought was mainland China, and in December the expedition landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan. He established a small colony there with 39 of his men. The explorer returned to Spain with gold, spices, and “Indian” captives in March 1493, and was received with the highest honors by the Spanish court. He was given the title “admiral of the ocean sea,” and a second expedition was promptly organized. Fitted out with a large fleet of 17 ships, with 1,500 colonists aboard, Columbus set out from Cadiz in September 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. Landfall was made in the Lesser Antilles in November. Returning to Hispaniola, he found the men he left there slaughtered by the natives, and he founded a second colony. Sailing on, he explored Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and numerous smaller islands in the Caribbean. Columbus returned to Spain in June 1496 and was greeted less warmly, as the yield from the second voyage had fallen well short of its costs. Isabella and Ferdinand, still greedy for the riches of the East, agreed to a smaller third voyage and instructed Columbus to find a strait to India. In May 1498, Columbus left Spain with six ships, three filled with colonists and three with provisions for the colony on Hispaniola. This time, he made landfall on Trinidad. He entered the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela and planted the Spanish flag on South America. By the scope of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, he realized he had stumbled upon another continent, which Columbus, a deeply religious man, decided after careful thought was the outer regions of the Garden of Eden. Returning to Hispaniola, he found that conditions on the island had deteriorated under the rule of his brothers, Diego and Bartholomew. Columbus’ efforts to restore order were marked by brutality, and his rule came to be deeply resented by both the colonists and the native Taino chiefs. In 1500, Spanish chief justice Francisco de Bobadilla arrived at Hispaniola, sent by Isabella and Ferdinand to investigate complaints, and Columbus and his brother were sent back to Spain in chains. He was immediately released upon his return, and Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to finance a fourth voyage in which he was to search for the earthly paradise and the realms of gold said to lie nearby. He was also to continue looking for a passage to India. In May 1502, Columbus left Cadiz on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. After returning to Hispaniola against his patron’s wishes, he explored the coast of Central America looking for a strait and for gold. Attempting to return to Hispaniola, his ships, in poor condition, had to be beached on Jamaica. Columbus and his men were marooned, but two of his captains succeed in canoeing the 450 miles to Hispaniola. Columbus was a castaway on Jamaica for a year before a rescue ship arrived. In November 1504, Columbus returned to Spain. Queen Isabella, his chief patron, died less than three weeks later. Although Columbus enjoyed a substantial revenue from Hispaniola gold during the last years of his life, he repeatedly attempted (unsuccessfully) to gain an audience with King Ferdinand, whom he felt owed him further redress. Columbus died on May 20, 1506, without realizing the great scope of his achievement: He had discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.