These Pants Were Pulled From an 1857 Shipwreck. Are They the World’s Oldest Jeans?

After more than a century at the bottom of the ocean, the garment fetched $114,000 at auction

1857 shipwreck jeans
The five-button work pants recovered from the S.S. Central America Courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections

Earlier this month, a pair of pants recovered from an 1857 shipwreck sold for $114,000 at auction.

Experts with the auction house, Holabird Western Americana Collections, think they were once a pair of men’s work pants, possibly worn by a miner. The original color of the fabric is unclear, but after spending more than a century in a passenger’s trunk at the bottom of the sea, the pants are now stained black and brown. The fly has five buttons.

The pants likely belonged to John Dement, an Oregon merchant and veteran of the Mexican-American War. He was one of the survivors from the S.S. Central America, a 280-foot vessel that sank during a hurricane on its way from Panama to New York City. Several hundred passengers died in the wreck.

The ship’s remains were found off the coast of North Carolina in 1988. When it sank, the S.S. Central America—also known as the “ship of gold”—was transporting thousands of pounds of gold bars, nuggets and coins found during the California Gold Rush.

Since the pants were recovered, their origins have been somewhat controversial. Auction house officials think they were an “early manufacture of work pants sold by Levi Strauss,” according to the listing page.

“The five-button fly is nearly identical, if not technically identical, to Levi’s of today, inclusive of the exact style, shape and size of the buttons themselves,” they write. “We do not believe this to be a coincidence.”

However, Levi Strauss made its first official pair of jeans in 1873, a full 16 years after the S.S. Central America sank to the bottom of the ocean. The company’s historian and archive director, Tracey Panek, says the shipwreck pants lack company branding and hallmarks, such as rivets, patches and buttons.

“The pants are not Levi’s nor do I believe they are miner’s work pants,” Panek tells the Associated Press’ Scott Sonner.

Five-button fly
The five-button fly Courtesy of Holabird Western Americana Collections

As Erika Mailman reports for Smithsonian magazine, a Nevada-based tailor named Jacob Davis partnered with Levi Strauss and patented the company’s signature copper rivet-reinforced seams and pockets in May 1873. “While denim is ubiquitous today,” Mailman writes, “surviving examples of 19th-century jeans are few and far between.”

The pairs that do exist, though, are valuable. An 1893 pair sold for $100,000 in 2018; earlier this year, an 1880s pair found in an abandoned mineshaft sold for $87,400.

Whether they’re Levi’s or not, the pants are still unique: Auction officials think they are the only known pair of jeans from the Gold Rush. And due to the low-oxygen environment, items like those in Dement’s trunk are “in remarkable condition, stained but supple,” wrote Robert D. Evans, a scientist and historian who led recovery expeditions to the wreck, in the auction’s catalog.

In total, the auction house sold 270 items from the shipwreck earlier this month. The company will be offering up even more during a second auction in late February.