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1850s jeans from a shipwreck sold at auction


Taken from a chest sunk in an 1857 shipwreck off North Carolina, the work pants that auction officials describe as the world’s oldest known pair of jeans sold for $114,000 US.

The tough white 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 over the weekend last, according to Holabird Western American Collections.

There is disagreement over whether the expensive pants have 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 & Co. by 16 years. in 1873. Some say historical evidence suggests there are ties to Strauss, who was a wealthy wholesaler of dry goods at the time, and the pants may be a very early version of what would become the iconic jeans.

But historian and director of the society’s archives, 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 Associated Press.

Whatever 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 journey in San Francisco and were heading to New York via Panama. . And there is no indication that older work pants from the Gold Rush era exist.

“These miner’s 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 auctioned them.

Other auction items that had been buried for more than a century in the wreckage of the ship 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean included the keys to the purser of the room at treasure trove where tons of Gold Rush coins and assayer bars were stored. It sold for US$103,200.

Tens of millions of dollars worth of gold have been sold since salvage from the sinking began in 1988. But last Saturday marked the first time artifacts have been auctioned. Another auction is scheduled for February.

“There has never been anything quite like these salvaged artifacts, which represented a time capsule of everyday life during the Gold Rush,” said Fred Holabird, president of the auction house.

The lid of a Wells Fargo & Co. treasure chest, believed to be the oldest of its kind, cost US$99,600. An 1849 Colt pocket pistol sold for US$30,000. A US$20 gold coin minted in San Francisco in 1856 and later stamped with a Sacramento pharmacy advertisement fetched US$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 captured the interest of historians and collectors. 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 these are or aren’t Levi’s with 100 percent certainty,” Manley said. But “these are the only known Gold Rush jeans…that are not present in any collection in the world”.

Holabird, considered an expert on the gold rush era in his more than 50 years as a scientist and historian, agreed: “So far, no museum has come up with another .”

Panek said that Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis, a Reno tailor, received a U.S. patent in May 1873 for “An Improvement in the Attachment of Pocket Openings”. Months later, she said, the company began making the famous riveted pants – “Levi’s 501 jeans, the first modern blue jeans.”

She said ahead of the auction that the shipwreck pants had no corporate branding – 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 miner work pants in our records.” She cited the color, “the unusual fly design with additional side buttonholes” and the non-denim fabric which is lighter “than the fabric used for her first riveted garments”.

Holabird said he told Panek while she was examining the pants in Reno last week that there was no way to compare them historically or scientifically to those made in 1873.

Everything had changed — materials, product availability, manufacturing techniques and market distribution — between 1857 and the time Strauss released a rivet pocket, Holabird said. He said Panek didn’t disagree with him.

Levi Strauss & Co. has long maintained that until 1873 the company was strictly a wholesaler and did not manufacture clothing.

Holabird believes the pants were made by a Strauss subcontractor. He decided to “follow the silver – follow the gold” and found that Strauss had market reach and sales “at a level never seen before”.

“Strauss was the largest merchant to ship gold out of California during the period 1857-1858,” Holabird said.

The list of US$1.6 million cargo that left San Francisco on the SS Sonora in August 1857 for Panama was topped by US$260,300 in gold from Wells Fargo. Five other major banks followed, followed by Levi Strauss with US$76,441. Levi Strauss had at least 14 similar shipments averaging US$91,033 each from 1856 to 1858, Holabird said.

“Strauss sells to every decent-sized 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, unforeseen marketing genius.”

“In short, his huge sales create a cause to make. He should contract with producers for an entire production.”

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