Ever notice those little pockets on your jeans? They’re pretty much too small to be useful. But in ye olden times, it had an important purpose: The pocket held a pocket watch.
The ubiquity of the pockets can be traced back to the design for “waist overalls,” the original name for the blue jeans made by Levi Strauss & Co. They appear on the design in the patent Strauss and J.W. Davis received for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket Openings,” way back on May 20, 1873, and were first put into mass use in 1890 with the “Lot 501” jeans, the model for Levis 501 jeans today.
Because the small pocket was meant to hold pocket watches, you won’t usually find it on suit pants. Suit jackets already have pocket watches, which makes one on the pants superfluous. Levis Strauss himself, for example, kept a pocket watch in the vest of his business suit.
Pants with the tiny pocket are called “five-pocket pants,” but the tiny pocket isn’t actually the fifth one. The fifth pocket is actually on the back-left, added to Levi’s 501 jeans in 1901.
Pretty much no one today carries around a pocket watch. People tend to check the time on their phones or wristwatches. The small pockets are kept on Levi’s jeans today to maintain the integrity of the original design. Other pants have the pocket as an homage to the pocket watch. The style gives pants a more casual look because they don’t look like they’re meant to be matched with a jacket.
Different brands put the small pocket in different spots. Some put it in the front, next to a bigger pocket. Others have a smaller pocket within the regular-sized side pocket. But for Levi’s jeans, they’ve remained essentially unchanged since the 19th century. One exception, was during World War II.
Today, there isn’t much you can do with the tiny pocket. Some people suggest using them to keep coins or keys, but they tend to dig into your hip. Others recommend them for matches, condoms, and tickets, but those are difficult to extract if your fingers aren’t similarly tiny. The pockets are somewhat helpful for carrying small pieces of hand jewelry for a few moments — like if you plan to propose to your significant other, or if someone else is washing their hands and wants you to hold on to their rings — but that’s pretty much it.
For the most part, it’s best to ignore them and think about the pockets as a piece of history that’s still with us.
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