Vintage Levi’s 501 Jeans – The Ultimate Collector’s Guide
The Levi’s 501 is slowly approaching its 150th birthday. America’s classic pair of denim has gone through quite the evolution since its inception in 1873. The jean today is, although a different piece of garment entirely to the nineteenth-century waist overall, still referred to by its Lot number: 501. Due to an earthquake and fire in 1906 which destroyed the Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters and factories, it is unknown today why this number ‘5’ was first given to the core range of Levi’s products, but it’s a safe to say that most people have grown accustomed to the number 501 by now.
The 501 has gone through more than twenty makeovers in its already long life and many of the early models are difficult if not impossible to trace down today. To indicate their rarity (and value), Levi’s themselves bought a pair of c1890 501’s in 1997 which cost them approximately 25,000 dollars! It’s safe to assume that today, nearly twenty years later, this value would have almost doubled.
We invite you to take a walk down memory lane of the history of the 501, from its inception through every major variation, all the way to its current form today.
Editor’s note: if you haven’t already, be sure to also read our accompanying guide, “How to Date and Value Vintage Levi’s Type I, II, and III Denim Jackets“.
The History of the Vintage Levi’s 501 Jean
It all starts with The Two Horse brand patch. I mean, it doesn’t actually – but for the sake of dating your 501’s a decipherable Two Horse brand patch will tell you a lot about when your 501’s were produced. The Two Horse brand patch was implemented in 1886, sixteen years after Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis patented the copper-riveted waist overall. Actually, the waist overall wasn’t dubbed the ‘501’ until 1890 when the patent went into public domain and Levi’s had to think of new ways to make them stand out. The earliest pair of 501’s that I’ve come across currently for sale is a pair 1902 501XX priced at around 35,000 dollars in a good vintage condition.
If you’re lucky enough (or just willing to spend the amount of money) to acquire a deadstock (old and unworn) or near mint condition pair of 501’s with the Two Horse brand patch still intact, you’ll be able to identify it from examples on the internet of almost every patch that was ever issued. Most people carry their smartphones with them when they go vintage shopping anyway, and assuming you don’t have the interest or the photographic memory to store every single Two Horse patch inside your head you can always look it up.
However, using The Two Horse brand patch to date your 501’s will seldom be relevant as most vintage jeans are worn and washed countless times which in most cases have resulted in the patch having come off or simply being undecipherable.
Below I’ve listed some of the many different 501 models plus a few popular characteristics to each of them. Our timeline begins in 1890 when the lot number ‘501’ was first coined and ends around 2002 when the Valencia St. factory in San Francisco shut down as the last remaining Levi’s production facility on American soil. Any 501 produced after 2002 was most definitely made overseas.
Please note, that there were many models and transitional phases throughout the years and by the mid-twentieth century, the 60s in particular, numerous factories were producing 501’s, and thus features and years overlap in several examples. The following information is not based on facts, but on research carried out by myself and other collectors worldwide, sharing knowledge with each other. As always, we’re aiming to be as accurate as possible, but bear in mind, that there are no rules without exceptions.
- 1890: 501XX, Two Horse brand patch introduced, recessed button center, one back pocket, Amoskeag denim
- 1902: 501XX, added back pocket (two in total), recessed button center, long and “square” back pockets
- 1922-36: 501XX, belt loops added, cinch-back remains, rivets still exposed on back pockets, Cone denim
- 1936-41: 501XX, Red tab introduced, suspender buttons removed
- 1941-42: 501XX, Pre-war regulations, still with cinch, rivets and stitched arcuate
- 1942-47: S501XX, “Every Garment Guaranteed”, leather patch remains, but cinch is gone, rivets removed from crotch, watch pocket, arcuate is painted on instead of stitched
- 1947-55: 501XX (post-WWII model), iconic 501 model, slim fit
- 1955-62: 501XX, Jacron “leather-like” patch replacing leather patch. Still with “Every Garment Guaranteed”
- 1960-65: “Every Garment Guaranteed”-slogan removed, v-stitch and hidden rivets remains
- 1964-66: 501XX (last model), v-stitch and concealed rivets replaced
- 1966-68: 501XX 501 transitional model
- 1966-68: 501 0117 (0117 denotes “un-sanforized” denim)
- 1968-71: 501 A, S & F (introducing quality grading to customers)
- 1968-70: 501E (washing instructions printed on pocket bag)
- 1970-73: 501E “66” (chain stitched top waistband/no more v-stitch)
- 1971-78: 501e (small “e”, care label added, single stitch pockets)
- 1978-81: 501e (double stitch pockets)
- 1981-93: 501e, 3-stamp on the back of waist/fly buttons (except for a few transitional models (early 80’s))
- 1992-2002: 501e (501xx, “xx” in black), 3-stamp buttons, new care label w. written instructions on the front
Although the 501 changed in fit and overall design throughout the years, there are certain features that thrifters and collectors commonly look for in order to distinguish 501 models from each other. This guide won’t be going into detail of every single 501 model ever produced, but rather present you with some tools to help you narrow down the age of your old jeans.
There are also certain, heavily discussed features (like rivets and buttons) we won’t be delving into in fear of overcomplicating your search. We have, in the following guide, focused on what we think is the easiest methods of determining the age of 501’s. So let’s begin!
1984-2002: Modern Denim
1. Do they have a selvedge outseam?
An easy place to start your quest is to inspect the outseam of your jeans. If they’re made from selvedge denim, noticeable by a visible selvedge finish on the outseam, then your 501’s would have been produced in 1985 or earlier. According to former Levi’s XX Head Designer Miles Johnson, the Two Horse brand made use of selvedge denim up until 1985.
In the early to mid-1980’s the use of selvedge denim was phased out due to productive efficiency, and the jeans produced in this era were finished with an overlock stitch on the outseam instead. If your 501s are made from selvedge denim you can proceed to step 2, if not got to step 1a and learn more about dating eighties, nineties, and noughties 501s.
1a. Do they have an orange overlock stitch on the outseam?
The oldest non-selvedge 501s made use of a copper-orange overlock stitch, which was subsequently replaced with a white overlock stitch which was then custom up until 1993. If your non-selvedge 501’s have an orange overlock stitch, they’ll likely have been produced between 1981-84. If they have a white overlock, please proceed to 1b.
1b. Does the care label have a written instruction?
If they do, they were most likely produced between 1983-86. If the care label isn’t present or readable look for a lower capital “xx” after the lot number (501) in the bottom left on The Two Horse brand patch. The XX notation made its debut at the early dawn of the brand, but was removed from the lot number sometime in 1968. It was reintroduced in lowercase in 1987 so if this is present on the patch your 501’s are produced later than 1986 and you can proceed to 1d. If the Two Horse patch isn’t applicable go to step 1c.
1c. Does the care label include the red Levi’s batwing logo?
If so, your 501’s are produced later than 1986. Up until 1991 Levi’s made use of a care label with “Care on reverse” indicating the care instructions to be found on the backside of the label. If the red batwing logo is present please proceed to 1e, if not go to 1d.
1d. Do they have a red lot no. i.e. “501xx” on the Two Horse brand patch?
If so, your 501’s are either produced between 1986-1991 or 1991-1993 (transitional phase). The oldest of the two models had a small spacing between the 501 and the XX which was written in a small font too. On the 1991 model, the 501xx is written in one continuous spelling with XX in a bigger, bold font.
1e. Do they have a written care label and/or black lot no. i.e. “501xx” on the Two Horse brand patch?
If they do they are produced between 1991-2002/3 and is thus part of the last 501 model produced in USA. From 1991 to 2002, Levi’s started producing a new 501 with care symbols and written instructions. All the above models will typically have a three-digit stamp on the waist button, indicating what factory made them. E.g. “555” indicates the famed Valencia Street facility.
1971-1984: The Selvedge Era
2. Do they have a capital “E” LEVI’S RED TAB?
If so, they are produced before 1971 when Levi’s adopted a new prominent design feature, in changing all the letters in Levi’s (except for “L”) to lower capital on the RED TAB. The RED TAB from before 1971 is commonly referred to as Big E. If your 501’s are Big E’s please proceed to step 3, if not see 2a.
Another good indicator (i.e. if the RED TAB isn’t present anymore) of a post-1970’s 501 is the absence of the waist button “V” stitch.
A common thing to look for in vintage Levi’s is the small single needle “V”-stitch running along the edge of the button fly. This stitch runs from the top of the waistband to about a quarter inch below the waistband and then in an acute angle back up to the waist button, creating what looks like a “V”. This was a standard feature on 501s up until 1969. If you have a Big “E” 501 without a V-stitch it’ll be from around the turn of the decade.
NOTE: Around the same time a chain stitch was added to the top of the waistband (similar to the bottom waistband) replacing the single needle topstitch.
2a. Do they have a care label?
Care labels were introduced by law to USA-made garments in 1971. A quote from the FTC: “To assist consumers in getting information about clothing care, the Federal Trade Commission in 1971 issued the Care Labeling Rule.”
Care labels were sewn onto the outseam of the left leg and pocket bags were no longer printed with care instructions like previous models. The top line of the care label would say “SF 207”.
2b. Do they have a single lock stitch on the back pockets?
If yes, your small “e” 501’s are produced before 1978, and thus between 1971-78. The alternative double lock stitch denotes a pair of 501’s from after 1978.
2c. Do they have lemon yellow thread (and how much)?
Like with the vintage jackets, Levi’s made use of both copper orange and lemon yellow thread in their jeans. By the 1970s, the copper orange was the dominant thread color and by the end of the decade, the lemon yellow thread was phased out completely. This helps determine at what end of the 1970’s your Levi’s were produced.
Common places to find yellow thread:
- Coin pocket
- Bottom chain stitch
- Inside front pockets
- Around the fly (overlock)
- Belt loop bar tacks
2d. Do they have a shrinkage of “approx. 10%” (according to the care label)?
The double-stitched 501s that were produced after 1978 went through a few changes after 1981. The simplest way to separate them is to look at the care label. The care label on previous models indicated a shrinkage of “approx. 8%”. This was changed on the 1981 model to “approx. 10%”. This small “e” selvage 501 was in production up until 1984/5.
1947-1970’s: Where Things Start to Get Interesting
3. Does your 501’s have the Two Horse brand patch butted against the belt loop?
Around 1969-71 (and running until sometime in the 90s or present day) Levi’s introduced a thinner cardstock patch that had a tear-off section on its right side. (I’m guessing they added the tear off-section to move away focus from the new thinner cardstock; by instead adding a new feature/element to the jeans.)
This feature helps denote pre-1970’s jeans as the Two Horse patch on pre-1970 501s was usually butted against the belt loop, and in making space for the new tear off-section there would then be a gap between the patch and belt loop on post-1970 501’s.
4. Do they have washing instructions printed on the right pocket bag?
On the 1968 501E, washing instructions were included for the first time on the jean. This was several years before the FTC mandated care tags. Unlike the care label which was added in the early 1970s, the washing instructions were printed on the right pocket bag. 501s made between 1968 and the introduction of the care label in 1971 would reference this on The Two Horse brand patch on a line above lot and size indication in black lettering stating: “CARE INSTRUCTIONS INSIDE GARMENT”. If they don’t, then proceed they are older than 1968 and you can proceed to step 5.
5. Do they have 501XX written as the lot number?
When The Two Horse brand patch was first introduced (1886), Levi’s used the XX to denote the denim as being eXXtra strong, referencing their use of denim from Amoskeag Denim Mills, in Manchester, New Hampshire. The “XX” was last featured on the 1966-68 501xx 501 transitional model and not reintroduced until sometime in 1987. If the patch is present look for the small “501xx” stamp above the normal “501” stamp indicating the 1966-68 501xx 501. If the patch is present and reads “501XX” in large black letters your 501’s are even older and you can proceed to step 6a and 6b.
6a. Do they have a selvedge coin/watch pocket detail:
Since nearly the dawn of the 501, a small watch pocket (later dubbed coin pocket) had been featured by the right-hand front pocket. This was originally sewn on with a visible selvedge detail showing from the inside of the pocket. This feature was discarded sometime in the late 60’s (~1966) according to examples from the Japanese book 501XX. If they do have a selvedge watch pocket your 501s are produced earlier than 1966 and you can proceed to step 7.
6b. Do they have concealed rivets?
Rivets are what made Levi’s famous. They were used to reinforce pockets on the first pairs of 501s and was what Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis patented and pioneered in 1873. From 1937 onwards, the rivets on the back pockets were sewn so that they were only visible from the inside, due to consumer complaints regarding scratching furniture and saddles.
They were used on 501’s up until 1964/5, when they were replaced with a black bar tack (“Black Flag”) in 1964/65 (1966 according to Levi’s). Levi’s claimed they changed it for the same reason that made them conceal the rivets in the first place; to prevent them from scratching furniture etc. Their justification was that the hard wearing rivets would eventually wear through the denim and thus become visible anyway. If your 501s have concealed rivets, they are from before 1966 and you can proceed to step 7.
6c. Do they have a lemon yellow waistband stitch (single stitched)?
If yes, your 501s are likely to be before 1965. Around 1965, the lemon yellow waistband thread was replaced with copper orange thread. Notice that the 501 still had the v-stitch (and no chain stitch on top waistband) up until around 1969.
7a. Does The Two Horse brand patch read “Every Garment Guaranteed”?
Until around 1963, the 501XX models had “Every Garment Guaranteed” on The Two Horse brand patch. The text was sitting above the lot and size numbers and below the Two Horse-logo. According to Dr. Heech on Denimbro, this happened sometime during 1963.
The first 501XX-model without (running 1960-65) had no text in between the logo and lot/size no., but had more empty space between top-line and the “Original Riveted” logo. The 1963/64 model featured “Made in U.S.A.” centered in the space between, and following models adopted “WPL 423” (Levi’s registration number) and “100% Cotton” to the left and right side (respectively) of “Made in U.S.A.”. These features have remained a part of the patch (moving around several times, e.g. with the inclusion of “Care Instructions Inside Garment” in the 1980’s) up until 2002/3 when Levi’s stopped producing in USA.
7b. Do they have an offset back belt loop?
On later versions of the 1947 post-WWII 501XX, Levi’s incorporated an offset back belt loop, as opposed to being centered with the seat seam like on earlier models. This feature was commonplace on 501’s up until about 1964, when it was centered again. This rule has its exceptions, so you can also look for letter stamps on buttons, typically letters like K or S or a number on the pocket-enforcing rivets. If your 501s ticks one of these boxes please proceed to step 8.
8. Do they have a leather Two Horse brand patch?
If your 501s have a leather patch, they were produced before 1954 when the leather patch was phased out in replace of a thick Jacron (faux leather) patch. A similar thing happened to the Type II jacket during the 50’s. The replacement was an economical choice due to the company’s growth as well as modern washing machines tended to damage leather tags.
9. Do they have “LEVI’S” written on only one side of the RED TAB?
In the early 1950’s “LEVI’S” started to appear on both sides of the RED TAB along with the trademark “R”. A single-sided Levi’s RED TAB indicates a 501 produced prior to 1951.
10. Do they have a “diamond” arcuate stitch?
The curved design on the back pocket of our 501s are referred to as the arcuate. No one knows definitively why this design was chosen although many have speculated it signifies wings. In 1943 Levi’s trademarked this design in order to combat copycats.
The “diamond” refers to the center of the arcuate where the two curves meet in a point. After the war, when the iconic 1947 501XX was released, the arcuate was stitched on with a double needle sewing machines that resulted in this little overlapping of stitches, often called the “diamond” by collectors and thrifters. The double needle technology eased the process of sewing the arcuate for the seamstresses who had been used to stitching the arcuate with a single needle, giving the pre-WWII stitched arcuates a different, slightly “wonkier” look. If your 501’s don’t have a diamond arcuate stitch they are from before 1947 and you can proceed to step 11.
1945 – 1873 : It Belongs in a Museum
501 samples from before WWII are big ticket collector’s items, drawing interest from the only the most serious of hobbyists, museums, and even Levi’s themselves. A high quality 501 sample from the early twentieth-century can easily draw over $25,000 USD at auction. If you have a pair that meets any of the below criteria, we recommend you take them to a vintage appraiser for a fair estimate of their value.
11. Do they have an arcuate stitch at all?
If not, your 501’s were produced between 1942-47. During WWII regulations were made on production nationwide in order to ration certain materials like thread and metal.
The arcuate stitch was seen as an unnecessary feature to the government, but not to Levi’s. They wanted to keep their signature arcuate, which they instead put on with orange paint. If you have a pair of S501XX’s issued between 1942-47, they’ve most likely lost their paint by now and thus will have blank back pockets.
Other features to look for are donut buttons (with or without ‘laurel leaf’ motif), missing crotch rivet and watch pocket rivets plus back cinch which were all removed to comply with regulations set by the Government. These WWII issues will bring in more than $6,000 USD in a good vintage condition.
12. Do they have a stitched arcuate, RED TAB, and cinch?
If your 501’s ticks all of the above, then they’re produced before 1942, but later than 1936 when the RED TAB was introduced to the 501. If they don’t have a RED TAB you can proceed to step 13.
13. Do they have exposed back pocket rivets?
If so, then your 501’s are produced before 1937 when Levi’s started sewing the rivets beneath the denim to satisfy customer complaints about exposed rivets scratching furniture.
14. Do they have belt loops?
Belt loops were added to the 501 in 1922 to keep up with the current fashion. If you have a pair of 501’s with belt loops, cinch back, and exposed back rivets they’re produced between 1922-1936. If they don’t have belt loops you can proceed to step 15.
15. Do they have a chainstitched hem?
Judging from vintage examples as well as the LVC 1922 and 1933 reproductions, Levi’s didn’t incorporate chain stitch on hems until sometime between 1933 and 1935. If you have a 501 without chainstitching and they haven’t been re-hemmed, then they’re most likely from before 1933. However, take this step with a grain of salt, as many jeans were re-hemmed by the wearer.
16. Do they have a colored selvedge?
When Levi’s developed their waist overalls, they were buying their denim exclusively from the Amoskeag Denim Mills in Manchester, New Hampshire.
In 1915, they started buying denim from Cone Mills, Greensboro, North Carolina, and seven years later they were using Cone Denim exclusively. This gentleman’s agreement is referred to as The Golden Handshake, and still lasts to this day. In 1927 Cone Mills developed the 10oz. red line selvedge denim intended exclusively for 501 jeans. Other color variants like blue or grey are also seen from this era.
If your 501’s are made from white line (or id-less) selvedge denim, they’re most likely produced before 1927. Between 1915-1922 the denim could’ve been provided by both Amoskeag and Cone Mills. If your 501s make use of all white selvedge denim then proceed to step 17.
17. Do they have one or two back pockets?
Around 1902 Levi’s added another back pocket to their 501 waist overalls. If your 501’s only feature one back pocket they would’ve been produced before 1902. These very early examples of 501’s with only one pocket are nearly impossible to come across these days. They will most likely bring in more than $40,000 USD at auction.
We hope that helps you determine the rough age of your potential vintage find. Remember to use this guide as only a rough reference and to consult an expert before exchanging serious sums of money for any 501. Like any high-value field, fakes and copies abound and sorting through those is far beyond the scope of this article. Happy hunting!