RENO, Nevada– Pulled from a sunken log in an 1857 shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina, a pair of work pants that auction officials say are the world’s oldest known pair of jeans sold for $114,000.
The white, durable miner pants with a five-button fly were among 270 gold rush-era artifacts sold in Reno last weekend for a total of almost $1 million, according to Holabird Western American Collections.
There is disagreement as to whether the pricey pants have any ties to the father of modern blue jeans, Levi Strauss, as they predate the first pair officially made by his San Francisco-based Levi Strauss by 16 years & Co. in 1873. Some say that historical evidence suggests there are links to Strauss, who was a wealthy wholesaler of haberdashery at the time, and the trousers may be a very early version of what will become the iconic jean should.
But the company’s historian and archives director, Tracey Panek, says any claims about their provenance are “speculation.”
“The pants are not Levi’s nor do I believe they are miner work pants,” she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
Regardless of their origin, there is no denying that the pants were made before the SS Central America sank in a hurricane on September 12, 1857, packed with passengers who began their voyage in San Francisco and were en route to New York via Panama. And there’s no indication that older Gold Rush-era work pants exist.
“These miner’s jeans are like the first flag on the moon, a historic moment in history,” said Dwight Manley, executive partner of California Gold Marketing Group, which owns the artifacts and is offering them for auction.
Other auction items, buried for more than a century in shipwrecks 7,500 feet (2,195 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, were the purser’s keys to the treasury, which housed tons of gold rush coins and examiner’s bars. It sold for $103,200.
Since shipwreck salvage began in 1988, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of gold have been sold. But last Saturday artifacts entered the auction block for the first time. Another auction is planned for February.
“There has never been anything like these recovered artifacts, which provided a time capsule of daily life during the gold rush,” said Fred Holabird, president of the auction company.
The lid of a Wells Fargo & Co. Treasure Chest, 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 stamped with an advertisement for a drugstore 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 SS Central America went down, 425 died and 153 were rescued.
The unique mix of artifacts from high society San Franciscans to workers piqued the interest of historians and collectors alike. The pants came from the suitcase of an Oregon man, John Dement, who served in the Mexican-American War.
“At the end of the day, nobody can say with 100 percent certainty whether they’re Levis or not,” Manley said. But “this is the only known Gold Rush jean…not in any collection in the world.”
Holabird, who is considered an expert on the gold rush era with more than 50 years as a scholar and historian, agreed: “No museum has stood out with another.”
Panek said Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis, a Reno tailor, received a US patent for “An Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings” in May 1873. Months later, she said, the company began making the famous riveted pants — “Levi’s 501 jeans, the first modern blue jean.”
Before the auction, she said that the shipwreck trousers had no company logo – no “patches, buttons or even rivets, the innovation patented in 1873”.
Panek added in emails to AP this week that the pants “are not typical of miner’s work pants in our archives.” She cited the color, “unusual bow tie design with added side buttonholes,” and the non-denim fabric, which is lighter “than the fabric used for his earliest riveted garments.”
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 those of 1873.
Everything changed between 1857 and the time Strauss came out with a rivet-reinforced bag — the materials, product availability, manufacturing techniques, and market distribution — Holabird said. He said Panek didn’t contradict him.
Levi Strauss & Co. has long claimed that until 1873 the company was purely a wholesaler and did not manufacture clothing.
Holabird believes the pants were subcontracted to Strauss. He decided to “follow the money – follow the gold” and discovered that Strauss had market reach and sales “at levels never seen before”.
“Strauss was the largest retailer who shipped gold out of California in 1857-1858,” Holabird said.
Topping the list of the $1.6 million cargo that left San Francisco for Panama on the SS Sonora in August 1857 was Wells Fargo’s $260,300 in gold. Five other big banks followed next, followed by Levi Strauss with $76,441. Levi Strauss had at least 14 similar shipments between 1856 and 1858, each worth $91,033, Holabird said.
“Strauss sells to every decent dry goods store in California’s gold regions, probably hundreds of them — from Shasta to Sonora and beyond,” Holabird said. “This guy was an absolute marketing genius, unforeseen.”
“In short, its tremendous sales create a reason to be manufactured. He would have to sign a deal with the producers for an entire production run.”
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https://6abc.com/heavy-duty-miners-pants-pricey-levis-oldest-pair-of-jeans-in-the-world/12555509/ Pricey heavy-duty miner’s pants from 1857 go for $114k, raise Levi’s questions