A pair of work trousers recovered from an 1857 shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina and described as the oldest known pair of jeans in the world have sold for $114,000.
The white, heavy-duty miner’s trousers with a five-button fly were among 270 Gold Rush-era artefacts that sold for a total of nearly $1 million in Nevada, according to Holabird Western American Collections.
The trousers predate by 16 years the first pair officially manufactured by 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 trousers 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 plans,” she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
The SS Central America sank in a hurricane on September 12, 1857, packed with passengers who began their journey in San Francisco and were on their way to New York via Panama. And there is no indication older work trousers 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 artefacts and put them up for auction.
Other auction items that had been entombed for more than a century in the ship’s wreckage 7,200 feet (2,195 metres) below the surface of the Atlantic included the purser’s keys to the treasure room where tons of Gold Rush coins and ingots were stored. It sold for $103,200.
Tens of millions of dollars worth of gold has been sold since shipwreck recovery began in 1988. But this sale marked the first time any artefacts were up for auction. Another auction is planned in February.
“There has never been anything like the scope of these recovered artefacts, which represented 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 box 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 sold for $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 saved.
The unique mix of artefacts from high society San Franciscans to blue-collar workers piqued the interest of historians and collectors alike. The trousers came from the trunk of an Oregon man, John Dement, who served in the Mexican-American War.
“At the end of the day, nobody can say these are or are not Levi’s with 100 per cent certainty,” Mr Manley said. But “these are the only known Gold Rush jean … not present in any collection in the world.”
Mr Holabird, considered a Gold Rush-era expert in his over 50 years as a scientist and historian, agreed: “So far, no museum has come forward with another.”
Ms Panek said Levi Strauss & Co. and Jacob Davis, a Reno tailor, received a US Patent in May 1873 for “An Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings.” Months later, she said, the company began manufacturing the famous riveted jeans — “Levi’s 501 jeans, the first modern blue jean”.
She said before the auction that the shipwreck trousers have no company branding — no “patches, buttons or even rivets, the innovation patented in 1873”.
Ms Panek added that the trousers “are not typical of miner’s work pants in our archives”. She cited the colour, “unusual fly design with extra side buttonholes” and the non-denim fabric that’s lighter weight “than cloth used for its earliest riveted clothing”.
Levi Strauss & Co has long maintained that up until 1873, the company was strictly a wholesaler and did no manufacturing of clothing.
Mr Holabird believes the trousers were made by a subcontractor for Strauss. He decided to “follow the money — follow the gold” and discovered Strauss’ had a market reach and sales “on a level never seen before”.
“Strauss was the largest single merchant to ship gold out of California in the 1857-1858 period,” Mr Holabird said.