World’s oldest jeans shipwrecked and now sold

The $114,000 Levis (Holabird Western Americana Collections)
The $114,000 Levis (Holabird Western Americana Collections)

The world’s oldest-known pair of jeans, recovered from the 1857 shipwreck Central America, have sold at auction in Reno, Nevada for US $114,000 – more than double the pre-sale estimate. Gold from the famous shipwreck, which was found by treasure-hunters in 1988, had been sold over the years but this was the first sale of artefacts. 

The work-trousers, thought to have been an early example of Levi Strauss-made garments, were salvaged from the “ship of gold” wreck that lies 2,300m deep off North Carolina. Bought by a gold prospector in San Francisco but probably unworn, they were among 550 items of memorabilia up for sale, according to Holabird Western Americana Collections.

Gold nuggets were also up for sale, although the $1.08 million paid was well below pre-sale estimates. 

The 85m side-wheel steamer Central America sank on her way from Panama to New York via Havana when a September hurricane destroyed her sails, causing the deaths of 425 of the 578 passengers and crew onboard. An estimated 13.6 tonnes of California Gold Rush gold went down with the ship, along with many personal possessions and other artefacts. 

Close-up of the fly, identifiably Levi-style (Holabird Western Americana Collections)
Close-up of the fly, identifiably Levi-style (Holabird Western Americana Collections)

The jeans were recovered from a trunk marked as belonging to John Dement of Oregon, a veteran of the Mexican-American war of 1846-48 who was one of the survivors of the sinking. The five-button fly design is said to be almost identical to that on today’s Levis in style, shape and button size.

Well-preserved in the anoxic conditions on the deep-lying wreck, the jeans are now colourless, and whether they were originally blue can no longer be shown.

Levi Strauss settled in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1853 to make his fortune. He set up a dry-goods business, but his first Levis-branded riveted blue jeans appeared only in 1873. The previous oldest-known surviving Levis were found in a mine and dated to the 1880s.

Also on Divernet: 13th Time Lucky: Tragic Gold Rush Shipwreck Located, Liverpool Bay Gun-Runner Wreck Protected, Rare Sail/Steam Wrecks Listed

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