World's Oldest Jeans Sell for $114K

Are there any ties of pants retrieved from 1857 shipwreck to dungarees icon Levi Strauss?
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 12, 2022 11:23 AM CST
World's Oldest Jeans Sell for $114K
Fred Holabird, left, and Bob Evans pose with artifacts, including a Wells Fargo treasure box lid from the SS Central America in a warehouse in Sparks, Nevada, on May 4. The lid, which sold for $99,600, was among 270 Gold Rush-era artifacts that sold for a total of nearly $1 million in Reno last weekend,...   (Jason Bean/The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File)

Pulled from a sunken trunk at an 1857 shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina, work pants that auction officials describe as the oldest known pair of jeans in the world have sold for $114,000. The white, heavy-duty miner's pants with a five-button fly were among 270 Gold Rush-era artifacts that sold for a total of nearly $1 million in Reno last weekend, according to Holabird Western Americana Collections. There's disagreement about whether the pricey pants have any ties to the father of modern-day blue jeans, Levi Strauss, as they predate by 16 years the first pair officially manufactured by his San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. in 1873.

Some say historical evidence suggests there are links to Strauss, who was a wealthy wholesaler of dry goods at the time, and the pants could be a very early version of what would become the iconic jeans. But the company's historian and archive director, Tracey Panek, says any claims about their origin are "speculation." "The pants are not Levi's, nor do I believe they are miner's work pants," she wrote in an email to the AP. Regardless of their origin, there's no denying the pants were made before the SS Central America sank in a hurricane on Sept. 12, 1857, packed with passengers who began their journey in San Francisco and were on their way to New York via Panama. And there's no indication older work pants dating to the Gold Rush-era exist.

"Those miner's jeans are like the first flag on the moon, a historic moment in history," said Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group, which owns the artifacts and put them up for auction. The pants came from the trunk of an Oregon man, John Dement, who served in the Mexican-American War. Panek said before the auction that the shipwreck pants have no Levi Strauss company branding—no "patches, buttons, or even rivets, the innovation patented in 1873." Panek added in emails that the pants "are not typical of miner's work pants in our archives." She cited the color, "unusual fly design with extra side buttonholes" and the non-denim fabric that's of a lighter weight "than cloth used for its earliest riveted clothing."

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Still, the auction company's Fred Holabird said he told Panek while she examined the pants in Reno last week there was no way to compare them historically or scientifically to those made in 1873. Holabird believes the pants were made by a subcontractor for Strauss. "At the end of the day, nobody can say these are or are not Levi's with 100% certainty," Manley said. Other auction items that had been entombed for more than a century in the ship's wreckage 7,200 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean included the purser's keys to the treasure room where tons of Gold Rush coins and assayers' ingots were stored. They sold for $103,200. Of those on board when the SS Central America went down, 425 died and 153 were saved. (More jeans stories.)

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