All About The Lee Jean Company; A symbol of American innovation and success
Stretching across the fabric of history, Lee Jeans are woven into the country’s past.
Denim. The quintessential American fabric. From a cowboy’s Wranglers to a pop star’s diamond-studded denim jacket, blue jeans have become more than just a piece of clothing. They represent the American persona – casual, sturdy, dependable.
The Lee Jeans Company has provided Americans with work wear, casual clothes and western gear since the early twentieth century. What was once an apparel factory in Kansas City in 1915 has become the largest publicly held apparel company in the world today.
The founder of Lee Jeans, Henry D. Lee, was born in Vermont in 1849. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lee decided to follow the advice of a doctor and leave the cold, wet northeast behind. Moving to Galion, Ohio, when he was 16 years-old, Lee found a job as a hotel clerk. After saving $1,200, Lee invested in real estate and livery until he was able to purchase the Central Oil Co. of Galion.
Suffering from poor health, Lee sold the company in 1886 to John D. Rockefeller and moved to Salina, KS, where he started the wholesale grocer Lee Mercantile Company. His company soon became the main distributor that carried food, notions, furnishings, stationary and school supplies between Denver and Kansa City. Opening his apparel factory in Kansas City in 1915, Lee was producing work jackets, overalls and denim pants. The company kept Lee’s name after his death in 1928; the H.D. Lee Company was born.
Lee originated the Union-alls, a pair of unique coveralls created by sewing together a pair of pants and a jacket. Farm and factory workers embraced the new design, and were able to remain clean and protected within the denim material. In 1917, Brigadier General Leonard Wood ordered his World War I soldiers to be outfitted in Lee’s Union-alls after discovering that the fabric wouldn’t wear out. Lee Jeans had moved overseas.
The “cowboy pant” hit the market in 1924; the design was then tailored for seamen and loggers. Lee had solidified its reputation as the choice for the hard-working man. Two year s later an innovation came about that changed denim forever – zippers were added to jean pants. Gone was the button fly, a hindrance for working men who were on the go. The fit was also tailored down – the inseam was now proportionate to the fit of the seat.
The 1930s found the H.D. Lee Co. celebrated its highest sales; a special line made solely for the cowboy and rodeo trade was introduced in San Francisco. During World War II the company began to market a line for the women who had taken over the empty positions in the factories and fields that the servicemen had deserted in their bid to win the war for America.
The 1960s found Lee Jeans marketing to youth; the five-pocket jean pant becomes the most popular piece of apparel in the country for the newest generation of Americans. Lee again tailored its image to the changing social times; in the 1980s the company introduced its “stone-washed” design, using pumice stones to wear the fabric down to a dull white-blue shade.
Headquartered today in Merriam, KS and employing over 400 people in the United States, Lee Jeans spans three continents and 20 countries. Major retailers such as Kohl’s, JCPenney and Sears carry the Lee brand names Lee Jeans, Riveted by Lee, Lee Dungarees and Lee Pipes.
The popular Buddy Lee doll, seen in today’s advertising market, originated in 1920 as a consumer promotion. A ceramic figure, Buddy Lee was placed in store windows to catch the eye and purse strings of shoppers.
The H.D. Lee Co. provided durable clothing that outfitted the farmers of the Midwest, the last cowboys to work the plains, and the soldiers who fought in World War I. Proudly proclaiming that their history is “woven into America’s western expansion and the world events of the 20th century,” Lee Jeans paved the way with innovation and entrepreneurship, solidifying the American Dream.