Pair of 1880s Levi's Sold for $76,000 at Auction. They Reveal a Dark Part of US History

Imprinted on the inside pocket of the jeans is a phrase that was commonly added to products after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

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A pair of Levi's jeans from the 1880s was recently sold at a northern New Mexico auction for $76,000.

The item, found in an old mineshaft, was sold with a winning bid that was more than 1,144 times the retail cost of the lowest priced jeans currently available on Levi’s online store.

“It was $76,000, and there was an additional 15% buyer’s premium. So, it ended up being $87,000,” said Zip Stevenson, a Santa Rosa native and owner of the vintage clothing company Denim Doctors.

Stevenson paid for 10% of the winning bid. The rest of the cost was covered by his partner Kyle Haupert, a San Diego resident who also deals with vintage clothing.

The jeans have splatters and holes, but are mostly intact. Stevenson’s newest old item offers a snapshot of the era they were produced — imprinted on the inside pocket are the words, “Made by White labor.”

The San Francisco-based company said the phrase was added on its products after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited all Chinese laborers to the U.S. for 10 years, even though they had already made contributions to the country.

“It comes out of intersecting strands of racializing the Chinese as inferior, as 'disease carriers,' as economic competition,” said Dr. Catherine Ceniza Choy, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. “One of the things that we can learn is that the current surge in anti-Asian hate and violence against Asian Americans, especially around what has been called the 'Chinese virus' is not new.”

Levi’s said in a statement that during that era, the thought was that the slogan would “improve sales and align with the views of consumers at the time."

"This continued into the 1890s, when we reversed our policy," company officials said.

Levi's added that it is fully committed to “advocate for real equality and to fight against racism in all its forms as it persists today.”

The item is now in the hands of Stevenson and his partner.

“Most of the jeans that are known are in institutions,” he said.

Stevenson is advising his partner not to consider any offers less than $150,000.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the item was found in a mine shaft in northern New Mexico. It has been updated to reflect that the auction took place in northern New Mexico.

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