A pair of men’s jeans recovered from the wreckage of a 19th-century steamer ship fetched an eye-popping $95,000 at auction last week. Per the auction house description, it’s the earliest known pair of five-button fly, heavy-duty work pants, most likely made by or for Levi Strauss & Company in the 1850s. The pants went down with the SS Central America off the Carolina coast during a hurricane in September 1857 and are remarkably well-preserved, thanks to the anaerobic environment where they were found. Previously, the oldest known pair of Levi’s was found in an abandoned mine shaft and dated back to the 1880s, selling at auction earlier this year for $87,400.
The SS Central America was a 280-foot steamer operating between Central America and the US East Coast in the 1850s. On its ill-fated final voyage, it carried 587 passengers and crew, many of whom had traveled from San Francisco to Panama via another steamship. (This was before the construction of the Panama Canal.) Among its cargo were thousands of freshly minted 1857 Double Eagle coins, along with older gold coins and ingots (gold bricks)—hence its nickname, the “Ship of Gold.”
The voyage started out smoothly enough, but on September 9, 1857, a Category 2 hurricane hit, shredding the ship’s sails. Two days later, it took on water, and the paddle wheels and boiler failed. The sharp drop in steam pressure also shut down both bilge pumps, so both passengers and crew worked strenuously as part of a bucket brigade to fight off the rising water. There was a brief calm, but the crew couldn’t get the boilers restarted, and soon the hurricane was back in full force.