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The History of Blue Jeans

posted by Jason Kottke Feb 16, 2022

This is a short clip of a PBS American Experience episode called Riveted: The History of Jeans. It traces the origin of blue jeans back to India and Europe:

James Sullivan, Author: We're not quite sure exactly where the fabric originated, but there are several hints: One is Dungri, India, where as early as the 17th century, they were creating a coarse cloth for workers, eventually called dungaree. There's the Genoans of Italy, who had a certain type of sail cloth that was eventually fashioned into work pants. And there's Nimes, France where the cloth there was known as "serge de Nimes." Not always but very often, these various types of cloth were dyed blue. Probably to hide dirt as much as anything.

Rabbit Goody, Weaver: So, we have blue "jean" from Genoa, we have blue "de Nimes" or denim coming from Nimes but when we make it into pants in America, we end up morphing the garment into blue jeans.

When denim came to America, much of the labor to produce it and knowledge of the process for dying it blue came from enslaved people who had been working with indigo for hundreds of years in Africa:

Daina Berry, Historian: In fact we know the names of all the enslaved people that were owned by the Lucas and Pinckney family. These are generations of families. We're not just talking about a husband and a wife, or a mom and a dad. We see grandparents on this list. They're the ones that came from communities that dyed all kinds of cloth beautiful colors. They're the ones that had the knowledge of indigo; they're the ones that created generations of wealth for these white slave-holding families.

Evan Morrison, Collector: Back in the 19th century denim really dominated because it's a strong weave. So with the rise in durable cotton goods, denim made itself the accepted second skin in terms of cloth that was put into clothing meant for laborious work.

Seth Rockman, Historian: So as American cotton manufacturing begins to sort of find its footing in the 18-teens and 1820s, mills in Rhode Island, mills in Massachusetts, mills in New Hampshire, they need a source of cotton. And the only source of cotton that's available to make these mills economically viable is cotton that's being grown by enslaved men, women, and children in the American South.

If you're in the US, you can watch the entire episode on PBS or on the PBS website.