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A pair of Levi's that sold for $76K reflects anti-Chinese sentiment of 19th century

Contemporary Levi's jeans are displayed at a Kohl's store. A pocket on an 1880s-era pair of Levi's recently sold at auction says, "The only kind made by white labor."
Jeff Chiu
/
AP
Contemporary Levi's jeans are displayed at a Kohl's store. A pocket on an 1880s-era pair of Levi's recently sold at auction says, "The only kind made by white labor."

A pair of Levi's jeans sold for more than $75,000. Don't worry. Inflation hasn't gotten that bad.

The (really, really) old pair of jeans hails from the 19th century. The jeans were put up for bid at an auction in New Mexico. Two vintage-clothing collectors teamed up to put down the cash in order to bring this piece of history back to California.

With the 15% buyer's premium, the duo (Zip Stevenson and Kyle Haupert) put down a combined $87,400. The agreement to go into the deal together was made as the jeans were being auctioned. The deal was captured by Haupert's phone and posted on Instagram.

The pants were found years ago by denim historian Michael Harris in an abandoned mine shaft, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Aside from the pants' wear and tear and what the buyers and Harris believe to be candle wax from the former wearer (a miner, they seem to believe), the jeans hold another piece of history — one that Levi's is likely to want to forget.

One of the faded pockets of the pants bears the phrase "The only kind made by white labor."

"Levi Strauss & Co. is a company with a long and mostly proud heritage. Across our history, we have strived to do good in and beyond our business and to be a positive force for equality and racial justice," a Levi Strauss & Co. spokesperson told NPR in an emailed statement. "But there have been times when we've fallen short."

"An economic crisis in the United States in [the] 1870s led to high unemployment and fueled anti-Chinese sentiment and rampant discrimination. In 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was significant social pressure not to hire Chinese workers and LS&Co. adopted an anti-Chinese labor policy," the spokesperson said.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first instance in U.S. history that immigrants were prevented from entering the United States based solely on race and class, according to prior reporting by NPR. The law established a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. Further restrictions on the immigration of Chinese laborers continued well into the 20th century, according to the National Archives.

During this time in the 19th century, Levi's declared in ads and on its products that the products were "made by white labor." The thinking was that this would improve sales and align with consumers' viewpoints at the time. The company later reversed its policies in the 1890s, the spokesperson said.

"We are wholly committed to using our platform and our voice to advocate for real equality and to fight against racism in all its forms as it persists today," the company said.

If you're intrigued by this piece of clothing, Denim Doctors, a vintage showroom in California run by Stevenson, is showing the jeans in its store.

"We are showing by appointment only as these are kept in a bank vault," the store said on Instagram. "Feel free to make an appointment by calling."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Denim Doctors (@denimdoctors)

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.
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