Some are becoming valuable in an emerging market
On a recent metal-detecting hunt with my brother Jim, he pulled up an interesting old trouser button, which was our “find of the day.” We had hoped our “find of the day” would be a silver coin or a Civil War buckle, but we had fun nonetheless, and the button looked kind of interesting. After we cleaned it to the point of being legible, we looked around online and found that it was a button from a pair of “Sweet Orr” work pants. The button wasn’t especially valuable, but it offered us a chance to learn a bit about this company, which some feel was the first company to make “blue jeans” in the mid-19th century.
As I researched the topic and explored the values of other brass buttons in general, it was obvious that the most valuable brass buttons were marked military uniform buttons, especially from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
But in terms of everyday work clothes, I noticed a niche of collectibles I had not ever considered as an antique or a collectible, those being buttons and clothing from the “Levi Strauss Company,” which was founded in 1873, then went on to become an American business giant. But similar to Coca-Cola, when a business becomes a fixture in our culture and survives for multiple generations, the original items created during the company’s infancy become historical and in high demand.
Levi Straus brass buttons have a low ceiling in terms of value; there isn’t a $10,000 Levi Strauss button (yet!). The typical range for early Levis buttons in good condition is in the $20.00 range.
But if you’re talking about original vintage Levi Strauss blue jeans, the ceiling is just a tad higher. The pair of Levis jeans shown below brought nearly $100,000 at a private auction in 2017. They were sold to an anonymous high bidder from S.E. Asia by Daniel Buck Auctions in Lisbon Falls, Maine.
There are two separate categories of collectors that drove the market for this particular pair of jeans. One market was the pioneer history collectors’ market because this pair of pants belonged to a man who is euphemistically called “The John Wayne of Arizona”– a very large man named Solomon Warner of Tuscon, AZ. The jeans are 124 years old and have a waist of 44 inches and an inseam of 36 inseam. I have plenty of friends who wear that same size today, but maybe in 1890s Arizona, it was unusual!
The other category of collectors that drove that price up was the Levi Strauss denim collectors. This is a collectors’ market that is evolving and thriving still today.
To me, the most interesting Levi’s collectors are the ones collecting more modern Levi Strauss jeans that are still considered “vintage.” Their market is more the “Baby Boomer” generation who actually wore these jeans, and they now fall into the collectible category of “nostalgia.” And because that demand has been created, similar to Hot Wheels cars and PEZ dispensers, a rare variant or error can be valuable.
In the case of Levi Strauss blue jeans, I was amazed to learn about the details on a pair of jeans that can prove, almost forensically, where and when a particular pair of jeans was made.
The design pattern often stitched onto the back pocket of jeans is called the “Arcuate stitching” and was used as fashion decoration as well as to support the back pocket lining. But this stitching is now a marker for collectors, and it is included in almost every description of collectible jeans I’ve seen being sold.
As you look at the values of Levis jeans, the more modern ones, in particular, it becomes daunting to try to walk through a flea market or a yard sale without worrying that you are walking by something you would never have thought could be worth thousands!
I have done full house cleanouts and run estate sales in the past, and I worry now that the most valuable items in the estate wound up in garbage bags and sent to Goodwill! As a consolation, I hope that the new owner needed the money more than I did.
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. Bram is the author of the book The Field Guide to American Trash. You can send an email to him at Bramiam@aol.com.
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