Lee History

Lee Jeans History – from the VCA board courtesy of e*happy

The history of the H.D. Lee Co. is woven into America’s western expansion and the world events of the 20th Century.

Whether outfitting cowboys in the twilight of the Wild West, supplying an American military entrenched in war, or producing the fashion and durability contemporary culture demands, the H.D. Lee Co. has led the way in innovation and style. Here, categorized by decades and featuring elements of business, leadership and style, is a history of the H.D. Lee Company.

1849-1899 – Henry David Lee is born Dec. 9, 1849, in Vermont. Early success in the oil business and a doctor’s admonition to go west, lead the tubercular Lee to settle in Salina, Kan., in 1889. There, the H.D. Lee Mercantile Co. becomes the major food distributor between Kansas City and Denver. Sales of notions, furnishings, stationery and school supplies follow.

1862 – Lee settles in Galion, Ohio, saves $1,200 in three years as a hotel clerk, and parlays livery and real estate investments into the purchase of Central Oil Co. of Galion.

1886 – A keen mind and poor health induce Lee to sell half his interest in Central Oil Co. to John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. Lee stays on as manager until poor health forces him out two years later.

1889 – Lee settles in Salina, Kan., and starts the H.D. Lee Mercantile Co., a wholesale grocery capitalized with $100,000 from Lee’s investment group and reportedly jumpstarted with $25,000 of Salina’s own money. The mercantile’s success spawns the Salina-based H.D. Lee Flour Mills Co., Lee Hardware Co. and Kansas Ice and Storage.

1889 – H.D. Lee leads the H.D. Lee Mercantile company from its 1911 beginnings, and until his fatal heart attack March 15, 1928, in San Antonio, Texas, was the company’s clothing arm, legs and torso.

1900-1909 – A devastating warehouse fire and the challenge of transporting goods over undeveloped land, some of it settled less than 50 years before, cannot keep Lee and his associates from becoming a prominent financial force across the Central Plains and burgeoning Midwest.

1903 – A major fire consumes the $125,000 Salina plant and its $450,000 contents. Twin towers arise like a double-headed Phoenix in its place.

1909 – A newspaper describes Lee as “head of the largest mercantile business in Kansas City and the biggest citizen of Salina, whose name is in every mouth and whose goods are on every shelf.” Lee evidently wears the pants in the Salina business community; he soon will be making them, too.

1910s – The H.D. Lee Mercantile Co. solves workwear supply problems by taking matters into its own factory. Innovation begins almost immediately with the production of Union-Alls, a unique, one-piece coverall originally created by sewing a coat and pants together.

1912 – Losing his shirt and pant sales due to unreliable workwear suppliers from the East, Lee opens his first apparel plant in Salina to produce overalls, jackets and dungarees.

1913 – Lee’s tradition of product innovation swirls out of the dust enveloping Lee’s horse less carriage. The Lee Union-All unites a jacket and dungarees to cover farm and factory workers from neck to ankles. It also improves the appearance of Lee’s chauffeur, who had tired of maintaining his clothes as he maintained the car. The Union-All idea belongs either to Lee or his chauffeur, depending on whom you ask.

1915 – A plant producing Lee’s innovative one-piece Union-Alls crops up in Kansas City, Kan.; two more pants plants soon follow.

1917 – Brigadier General Leonard Wood orders doughboys to be outfitted in Union-Alls, the fatigue the U.S. military couldn’t wear out during World War I. Lee also becomes the first national advertiser in the apparel industry.

1920s – The Lee Co. breaks new ground with additional factories, innovative advertising and the first promotional appearance of the popular Buddy Lee doll. The death of founder H.D. Lee initiates a strong succession of company presidents and management that carry Lee successfully through the remaining decades of the 20th Century.

1920 – The Lee Co.’s first consumer promotion introduces Buddy Lee, a ceramic figure first found loitering in storefront windows wearing Lee Overalls and a mischievous smile.

1919-21 – Lee roars into the 20s with a Kansas City, Mo., replacement for the smaller plant in Kansas City, Kan., a new plant and office in Minneapolis, an upgraded plant in Trenton, N.J., and warehouses in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

1924 – A 13-ounce denim cowboy pant is introduced in 1924. Custom designs for seamen and loggers also arrive as a precursor to customer-specific designs for people who need to impress while cruising a shopping mall or sliding behind the wheel of a sport utility vehicle.

1925 – The lighter weight, unsurpassed durability and twisted yarns of Lee Jelt Denim propel the Lee story.

1926 – Three words: Jeans with zippers. To fully appreciate this development, speak with a man standing in an Iowa cornfield in late December, his gloved hands desperately fumbling at his buttoned fly. Other fitting improvements include the U-shaped saddle crotch and tailored sizing, in which rise and seat proportions are based on waist and inseam measurements.

1927 – Textile technology takes a fashionable turn with the launching of color-fast herringbone twills.

1928 – Founder H.D. Lee dies of a heart attack in Texas.

1928 – Leonard C. Staples, the husband of Lee’s niece, assumes the position of president until his death.

1930s – Continued growth is a precursor to the cursing heard throughout the Great Depression. The Lee Co. once again prevails, opening a new plant in 1936 and later celebrating its 50th anniversary.

1936 – The Lee organization forecasts its highest sales since 1930 and opens a Lee Riders plant in San Francisco to supply the cowboy and rodeo trade. The Hair-on-Hide Lee patch is first attached to pants’ backs along the belt line.

1939 -Lee celebrates 50 years with – we couldn’t make this up – a Golden Jubi-Lee celebrating the company’s stance as the largest manufacturer of work clothes in the United States.

1940s – Increased apparel production and sales bolstered by post-war prosperity encourage the company to concentrate less on food and more on fashion.

1942 – Lee keeps rolling with Roland B. Caywood, president until his death.

1943 – Recognizing the company’s increasing apparel production, “Mercantile” is cut from the company’s moniker, creating The H.D. Lee Co., Inc.

1946 – Lee acquires Eloesser-Heynemann Co., the San Francisco-based workwear producer of “Can’t Bust Em” work clothes, to address market growth spurred by returning servicemen.

1946 – Color coordinated work shirts and pants are introduced.

1949 – Lee purchases Kansas manufacturer Bruce Co., sells the former Salina grocery warehouse.

1949 – The developing women’s market evolves from factories worked by women during World War II. Lee produces a jean befitting the female form with the introduction of Lady Lee Riders.

1950s – The Lee clothing concerns expand as the food division is sold. Lee moves onto the international market and shows appreciation for its domestic workers with an innovative pension plan.

1950 – The expanding jeans market leads Lee to fold the food division, selling it to Consolidated Grocers (later Consolidated Foods) for $3 million.

1950s – Lee acquires more companies and opens more new plants.

1952 – Named after its Chetopa, Kan., facility, Lee develops Chetopa Twill, a tough, sharp-looking new workwear fabric that rubs workers the right way.

1952 – Benjamin E. Kinney serves as president and C.A. Reynolds, a former Lee sales manager and founder of the Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Western Heritage Center, helps Lee lasso the western market as Lee Co. chairman. It was Reynolds who came up with the idea for Buddy Lee, past and present icon of Lee promotions and advertising.

1954 – Lee demonstrates its concern for the welfare of its workers with a pension plan, believed to be the first company-funded program covering all employees.

1954 – Lee enters the fast-growing leisure sportswear market with Leesures.

1956 – Leonard W. Staples, nephew of the company’s second chief executive, replaces Benjamin E. Kinney when Kinney replaces chairman C.A. Reynolds. Staples is president during Lee’s acquisition by VF Corp., makers of Vanity Fair intimate apparel.

1957 – Boys’ wear, and boys everywhere, receive a lift with the introduction of Lee’s “Double Knees,” patching relations between worn out moms and their “holy tearers.”

1959 – Dressy white jeans and jackets arrive in the form of the Lee Westerner. As if the new color weren’t enough, center creases and narrower legs make the Lee Westerner a high note in styling.

1959 – Lee opens its international division in New York City and receives the U.S. president’s “E” award for its extraordinary export efforts.

1960s – The first overseas Lee factory goes into production as baby boomers explode onto the clothing scene. The H.D. Lee Co. Inc. is acquired by VF Corp. in 1969

1960s – The tempo of fashion changes faster than the beat of a Motown retrospective; Lee not only keeps pace, but also leads the way as teens begin digging denim. By 1965, teens would spend $3.5 billion on apparel.

1964 – Lee opens its first overseas factory in Belgium.

1964 – Not since the onset of the zipper has such an innovation gripped the consumer: Lee presses on with a line of “no-iron” permanent press slacks, sold under the “Lee-Prest” banner.

Late 1960s – Lee opens plants in Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Kansas, Georgia and Louisiana. Corporate suitors begin ogling as the clothing company bursts at the seams.

1969 – Lee’s shareholders agree to an acquisition by Wyomissing, Penn.-based VF Corp., producer of Vanity Fair intimate apparel. Lee now can upgrade its U.S. concerns and enter joint ventures in Scotland, Belgium, Spain, Australia, Brazil and Hong Kong.

1970s – Advances in technology and the fundamentals of style induce advances that streamline and speed up production without sacrificing quality.

1971 – Former executive vice president D.F. Hoopes jumps at the chance to serve as president of Lee, which he does until his promotion to president of VF Corp.

1973 – Lee strengthens its commitment to the women’s market with the launch of a fitting tribute to women under the Ms. Lee label.

1974 – A 1974 Gentlemen’s Quarterly contains an ad for Lee’s double-knit leisure suit, made of Dupont’s 100 percent Dacron¨ polyester. Lee is ministering to the whims of a fickle public, and should not be blamed for this trend.

1974 – William McKenna leads Lee into the ’80s.

1979 – In its 90th year, Lee realizes its ambition to outfit the whole family with the formation of its Youthwear division, announcing the achievement with the slogan, “Lee Fits America.”

1980s – The computer age and automated production hit home.

1981 – Automated marking and cutting equipment decrease waste and increase savings.

1981 – As jeans sales reach 502 million units industry wide, the five pocket Lee “Genuine Jeans” become the accepted dress standard across the country. Denim becomes the material of choice, accounting for more than 77 percent of jeans sales in 1981.

1982 – Lee enters the stone age with its stone-washed denim jeans. Experiments using shredded car tires, bottle caps, golf balls, rope and wood lead to positive results using pumice (a type of lava rock).

1982 – Robert Gregory runs Lee for a year, then is named president of VF Corp.

1983 – Lee’s softer, stronger Ultra Cord is introduced as “the Ultimate in Corduroy.” Other innovations include Dress Blues, which feature superior color retention; stretch jeans; and Denim Cable-stripes. Lee taps the final frontier, producing infant and toddler apparel.

1983 – Richard Redden reins supreme.

1985 – Malcolm Winne serves as president until becoming chairman in 1986.

1986 – Lee’s answer to a more casual lifestyle appears in a line featuring a frosted finish and relaxed fit.

1986 – Lee enters its centennial with 17 sewing plants, five laundries, nearly 10,000 employees and a daily production capacity of 200,000 jeans. Costs are further clipped by the use of computer technology.

1986 – The tandem of Richard Lamm, executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Executive Vice President Jim Huntington , team to lead Lee into its centennial as a company with 17 sewing plants, five laundries, nearly 10,000 employees and a daily production capacity of 200,000 jeans.

1987 – Denim now accounts for nearly 84 percent of jeans sales.

1989 – The jeans manufacturer spends about $2 million annually for rocks from the United States, Turkey, Greece and Mexico used in treating fabric

1990 – A 200,000 square-foot distribution center opens in Mocksville, N.C., adding efficiency and speed to Lee’s customer service efforts.