RENO, Nev. –
A pair of work pants recovered from an 1857 sunken ship’s trunk off the North Carolina coast, which auction officials describe as the world’s oldest known jeans, has sold for $114,000.
According to Holabird Western American Collections, white, heavy-duty miners’ pants with a five-button flap were among 270 Gold Rush-era artifacts that sold for nearly $1 million in Reno last weekend.
There is disagreement over whether the expensive pants have any ties to the father of modern blue jeans, Levi Strauss, as they predate the first pair officially produced by his company, Levi Strauss & Co., by 16 years. based in San Francisco in 1873. Some say historical evidence suggests there are ties to Strauss, who was a wealthy dry goods wholesaler at the time, and the pants could be a very early version of what would become the iconic jeans.
But historian and company archive director Tracey Panek says any claims about their origins are “speculation”.
“The pants are not Levi’s, nor do I think they are mining work pants,” she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Regardless of their origin, it cannot be denied that the pants were made before the SS Central America sank on September 12, 1857 in a hurricane, full of passengers who had started their journey in San Francisco and were on their way to New York via Panama. And there is no indication that older work pants from the Gold Rush era exist.
“Those mining jeans are like the first flag on the moon, a historic moment in history,” said Dwight Manley, managing partner of California Gold Marketing Group, which owns the artifacts and put them up for auction.
Other auction items, buried for more than a century in the wreck 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, included wallet keys to a treasury that held tons of Gold Rush coins and assayers’ ingots. It sold for $103,200.
Tens of millions of dollars worth of gold have been sold since the wreck’s recovery began in 1988. Last Saturday, however, was the first time any artifacts hit the auction block. The next auction is planned for February.
“There has never been anything like the scale of these artifacts found, which represented a time capsule of everyday life during the Gold Rush,” said Fred Holabird, president of the auction company.
A Wells Fargo & Co. vault lid, believed to be the oldest of its kind, went for $99,600. An 1849 Colt pocket pistol sold for $30,000. A $20 gold coin minted in San Francisco in 1856 and later bearing an advertisement for a drug store in Sacramento fetched $43,200.
Most of the passengers aboard the SS Central America left San Francisco on another ship—the SS Sonora—and sailed to Panama, where they crossed the isthmus by train before boarding the doomed ship. Of those on board when the SS Central America went down, 425 died and 153 were rescued.
The unique mix of artifacts from high-society San Franciscans to blue-collar workers has piqued the interest of historians and collectors alike. The pants came from the trunk of an Oregon man, John Dement, who served in the Mexican-American War.
“At the end of the day, no one can say with 100 percent certainty that they are or are not Levi’s,” Manley said. But “these are the only known Gold Rush jeans … not present in any collection in the world.”
Considered an expert on the Gold Rush era in his more than 50 years as a scholar and historian, Holabird agreed: “No museum has come up with another one yet.”
Panek said that Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis, a Reno tailor, received a US patent in May 1873 for “Improvements in fastening pocket holes”. Months later, she said, the company began producing the famous riveted pants — “Levi’s 501 jeans, the first modern blue jeans.”
She said before the auction that the trousers from the wreck had no company branding – no “patches, buttons or even rivets, an innovation patented in 1873”.
Panek added in emails to the AP this week that the pants “are not typical of the miners in our archives.” She mentioned the color, the “unusual fly design with extra side buttonholes” and the non-denim fabric, which is lighter “than the fabric used for her earliest riveted clothing.”
Holabird said he told Panek when she examined the pants in Reno last week that there was no way to historically or scientifically compare them to pants made in 1873.
Everything changed — materials, product availability, manufacturing techniques and market distribution — between 1857 and the time Strauss came up with the rivet-forced pocket, Holabird said. Panek apparently did not agree with him.
Levi Strauss & Co. it had long maintained that until 1873 the company was exclusively a wholesaler and did not manufacture any clothing.
Holabird believes the pants were made by a subcontractor for Strauss. He decided to “follow the money – follow the gold” and discovered that Strauss had market and sales reach “at a level never seen before.”
“Strauss was the largest single merchant shipping gold from California in the 1857-1858 period,” Holabird said.
A $1.6 million cargo list that left San Francisco on the SS Sonora in August 1857 for Panama was topped by $260,300 in Wells Fargo gold. The next five major banks were followed by Levi Strauss with $76,441. Levi Strauss had at least 14 similar shipments from 1856-58, each averaging $91,033, Holabird said.
“Strauss sells to every decent-sized dry goods store in the California gold regions, probably hundreds of them — from Shasta to Sonora and beyond,” Holabird said. “The guy was an absolute marketing genius, unforeseen.
“In short, his huge sales create a case for production. He would have to contract with the producers for the entire production run.”
#worlds #oldest #jeans #recovered #shipwreck #sold #auction