KR lives in Seattle, WA, but grew up in Windsor, Ontario in the 70s and 80s. He remembers this custom that he never fully understood from the youth he grew up around.
KR: “I just thought of another one from childhood. One was that everyone was convinced that if you somehow collected the tabs off Levi’s jeans, somehow you were gonna get paid for it. So like there’s this thing where people where people were cutting the tabs off- and cutting the tabs off other people’s jeans ‘cause it was, and like there were extra points for the orange one versus the red one. But no one could ever explain to you what you were supposed to do with these tabs after you had them as far as I could tell. So that one was very strange.”
I have searched the internet and have not been able to track down any other mentions of this custom (or perhaps more of a trend?). As Levi’s has been a long established brand and their jeans are high quality and last for a long time, the longevity of the clothes has become prized. Therefore, Levi Jeans tabs are often used by vintage shoppers and collectors to date the manufacture of the jeans, as determined by the color and graphic design arrangement of the tab. However, this trend does not align with this typical use of the tabs, as removing the tabs from the jeans negates that purpose entirely.
There are multiple angles of analysis that I would use to start to understand this phenomenon. The first is simply that humans like collecting things, and that once your friends start doing something, you may join in simply as a social activity. While the mysterious promise of payment may have been false, the competition within social groups creates incentives to collect more, and better, tabs than others in the social circle. Contributing to this is the idea that certain colors of tabs (presumably rarer colors) were worth more ‘points,’ and the fact that even those who did collect the tabs were not able to explain how their financial end goal would be achieved.
Another interpretive angle to examine is the American entrepreneurial spirit. While KR did live in Canada, Windsor is directly across the border from Detroit and as we know, national borders don’t stop the bleeding of culture. And even without that bleed, Canada is still a western capitalist country, which still implies the teaching of profit motives. This trend of collecting tabs cut from Levi’s jeans was propagated by children and the youth, people who are generally economically dependent and not in a position to work full-time jobs or financially support themselves. The prominence of the Lemonade Stand in popular culture demonstrates how the drive to accumulate money is one taught early, and one that is not easily satisfied as a child that cannot realistically engage in the market. Just like the lemonade stand, this tab collecting is a hobby that promises a monetary reward, satisfying that urge to earn, or at a deeper level, to succeed within the value system of western capitalist society.