Vintage History

In this story about the “LEE” Brand Name, we will combine the history of both the Lee Jeans and the Jackets Products they manufactured since these products actually evolved from the work wear clothing line the Lee Company started with after its inception.


H.D. Lee Merchantile Co. opened in 1889 as a wholesale quality grocer and only later became a work wear manufacturer. In 1911, due to unreliable shipments from their suppliers, H.D. Lee Merchantile was prompted to produce their first line of work wear garments including the now famous vintage Lee Bib Overall. These overalls were made of 8 oz. denim and had a multifunctional breast pocket with a button fly . In 1926 Lee introduced slide fasteners on the bib overall straps to offer a better fit to the wearer. In 1913, H.D. Lee developed the “coverall” which combined the jacket with a bib overall being stitched together. With this, the Lee Union-All was created. This product, dubbed the “Union-All” was commissioned by the U.S. Army and was the official fatigue uniform during World War I. Later the words “UNION MADE” were included with the Lee Brand Name on many of its labels.

In 1921, Lee introduced its’ first “Railroad Jacket”. Designed specifically for railroad workers, it was named the Loco Jacket and its’ detail features were actually tested by the railroad workers themselves. About the end of the 1920’s Lee introduced the first denim jacket with a zipper closure known as the 91. This work wear line included the Lee 91 and Lee 191 series jacket. These work wear jackets could be identified by a house silhouette on the jacket tab, also noting the description “Jelt Denim and Sanforized”. In addition to the name Lee on the label, the famous “UNION MADE” also appeared. So up to this time, Lee was famous for providing industrial clothing as well as garments for railroad workers. Lee continued to emphasize work wear specifically for certain types of “worker trades”. In addition to the earlier described railroad jacket, in 1927 Lee introduced the “Logger dungarees featuring wider hips, watch pockets and suspender buttons.

It was in 1922 that Lee first introduced the Buddy Lee Doll , a choice of many vintage collectors today. They proved so successful that dolls were created featuring many different outfits.


However, times were changing and in addition to their leadership in denim workwear, by the mid 1920’s Lee recognized a greater need to supply western wear for cowboys and rodeo riders. In 1924, Lee introduced the Lee Cowboy Pants. The first Lee Cowboy pants were made in 13 oz. denim and were known as 101 jeans . These jeans, now part of the Lee “Riders” product line, did not carry that label until the mid 1940’s. The word “Rider” appeared from time to time, but it wasn’t until the 1940’s that the actual product range existed. In this model, Lee removed the back pocket rivets and in their place introduced bar tacking; however rivets did remain on the crotch and front pockets. This early model of the 101 became known eventually as the 101B once H.D. Lee introduced the zipper version 101Z. In 1925, Lee introduced its exclusive fabric, Jelt Denim. It was 11.5 oz. denim but had the durability of 13 oz. denim due to its tight weave and twisted yarn.

As a side note, the zipper was invented in 1893 and perfected in 1913. It was originally called the Hookless fastener. In the 1920’s and 30’s, the Talon and Scovill companies were dominant in the expansion and use of zipper fasteners. It was also in the early 1930’s that sanforization was perfected and was more widely used in the manufacture of denim products.

Sometime in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, Lee manufactured its first bib overall made with a zipper and called the “LEE WHIZIT”. During this same period, Lee also added a zipper to their cowboy pants and hence the name 101Z. It was also during this same period that Lee introduced two new work wear fabrics, Hickory Striped Denim and Color Fast Herringbone twill. Due to this, Hickory Striped Denim became synonymous with work wear garments.

However in 1931, Lee introduced the famous Lee 101J (Jelt) denim jacket. It was a slim jacket that had inward slanting breast pockets and a wide waistband. This jacket was introduced with the cowboy in mind and they were to continue to be produced for several decades. The “Slim” Jacket was the first shorter, more tailored western-style jacket and was later to be included under the Rider Label. These jackets, like most early versions of Lee Western Wear Jacket had three versions of pocket tags and labels which can be used to determine the approximate time they were manufactured. The first had only the marking “Lee”. The second used in the 1960’s had the “Lee ®” in the name. The Third version used since the 1970’s had the “Lee ® MR” in the name.

In 1933, Lee launched what was to become one of its most famous designs, the Storm Rider Jacket . It was a winter version of the “Slim” jacket Lee 101J which was launched in 1931 and it featured a blanket lining and corduroy collar. Early versions of the Storm Rider had embroidered labels but later became printed labels instead. These jackets had labels denoted as Lee 101LJ (Lined and Jelt) and Lee 101J (Jelt). Those manufactured since the 1970’s had the ® MR next to the name.

In 1936, Lee introduced the “Hair on Hide” label the Companies first leather label. The Lee logo was branded directly onto the cowhide.

It was in 1943 that the H.D. Lee Mercantile Co. became the H.D. Lee Inc. In was also in the 1940’s that the “Hair on Hide” label evolved into the “Twitch” or leather label we see on jeans today.

In 1944, Lee’s cowboy products were combined together under the “Lee Riders Label”. In that same year, Lee introduced the “Lazy S” back pocket stitching. The idea was that when the stitching on both back pockets were viewed together they resembled the shape of the famous Longhorn cattle in the West. It was at this time also that the back martingale was removed from the jeans.

In 1949, Lee launched the Lady Lee Rider line, a womens wear counterpart to the already existing Rider Line.

In the 1950’s, Lee introduced the Lee Westerner 100J with its white or colored twill and slimmer silhouette. The purpose was to give their customers something to wear on more “dress up” occasions. These jackets carried a Model Number of 100J. Lee Westerner Jackets came in white, black, brown, blue and Khaki. When they were manufactured can be determined by the registered trademark on the label.

The Lee 109JY series was manufactured as part of the ongoing series of Lee 100 western wear jackets. The fabric used was of a lighter weight and the back of the jacket had no fasteners.