Saturday, January 28, 2023

Historic auction: 1857 pair of pants sold for $114,000

RENO, Nevada – Pulled from a sunken trunk on a ship off the North Carolina coast in 1857, work pants that auctioneers describe as the oldest known pair of pants in the world have sold for $114,000.

Rugged white miner pants were among 270 Gold Rush-era memorabilia that sold in Reno last weekend for nearly $1 million, according to Holabird Western American Collections.

There is disagreement as to whether the expensive pants have any connection to Levi Strauss, the father of the modern blue jeans, as they predate the first pair officially manufactured in 1873 by San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Company by 16 years. Some say that historical evidence suggests a connection with Strauss, a wealthy wholesaler of dry goods at the time, and that the pants may be a very early version of what would become the iconic jeans.

But Tracy Panek, company historian and director of archives, says any claims about its origins are “speculation.”

In an email to The Associated Press, he wrote, “The pants are not Levi’s, nor do I think they are mining pants.”

Regardless of their origin, it cannot be denied that the pants were made before the SS Central America sank in a storm on September 12, 1857, which was filled with passengers starting their voyage in San Francisco and bound for Panama. Left for New York. And there’s no indication that the old work trousers from the Gold Rush era exist.

“The miners’ jeans are like the first flag on the moon, a landmark moment in history,” said Dwight Manley, managing partner at California Gold Marketing Group.

Other auction items that lay buried in the wreck for more than a century, 7,200 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, included the purser’s keys to the treasure room where tons of coins and bullion were stolen from Gold Rush raiders Were. Sold for $103,200.

Millions of dollars worth of gold have been sold since the recovery of the wreck began in 1988. But last Saturday was the first time an item was put up for auction. Another auction is scheduled for February.

“Nothing like these salvaged items, which represent a time capsule of everyday life during the Gold Rush, have been put up for auction,” said Fred Holabird, president of the auction company.

Wells Fargo & Company’s Treasure Box lid, believed to be the oldest of its kind, sold 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 Sacramento pharmacy fetched $43,200.

Most of the passengers aboard the SS Central America left San Francisco on another ship, the SS Sonora, and headed for Panama, where they crossed the isthmus by train before boarding the doomed ship. When the Central America sank, 425 of those aboard died and 153 were rescued.

The unique mix of items from San Francisco high society and blue-collar workers has piqued 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 with 100% certainty whether they are Levi’s or not,” Manley said. But “these are the only known Gold Rush jeans … that do not exist 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 forward with another.”

Panek noted that Levi Strauss & Company and Reno tailor Jacob Davis received a US patent in May 1873 for an “improvement in pocket opening”. Months later, he said, the company began making the famous Rivet pants: “Levi’s 501 Jean, the first modern blue jean.”

She said before the auction that the Wreck pants had no company branding—no “patches, buttons or even rivets, an innovation patented in 1873.”

Panek added in an email to the Associated Press this week that the pants “are not typical of the miners’ work pants in our files.” He cited the color, “the unusual design of the fly with extra side eyelets” and the non-denim fabric, lighter “than the fabric used for his early riveted clothing.”

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

Holabird said everything had changed—materials, product availability, manufacturing techniques, and market distribution—between 1857 and Strauss came along with the rivet-reinforced pocket. He said that Panek does not disagree with him.

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

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

Holabird stated, “Strauss was the largest single dealer shipping gold out of California in the period 1857–1858.”

Wells Fargo’s $260,300 worth of gold topped the list of the $1.6 million cargo that sailed from San Francisco to Panama in August 1857. This was followed by five other big banks, followed by Levi Strauss with $76,441. Holabird stated that Levi Strauss had at least 14 similar shipments between 1856–58, each averaging $91,033.

Holabird said, “Strauss sold to every decent-sized dry goods store in the California gold fields, probably hundreds of them, from Shasta to Sonora and beyond.” “This guy was an absolute marketing genius, unpredictable.”

“In essence, your heavy sales lead to manufacturing. You have to hire producers to run the entire production.”

Nation World News Desk
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