A brief, and very incomplete, history of pawning

From the website of The Chamber of Pawnbrokers of the Philippines, Inc.

I recently set out on a search for the history of the pawnshop industry in order to write a post here. As I began using the search engines to try and discover some information it beacame clear to me very quickly that you can find a lot of bits and pieces of information scattered around the web on the of history of the word pawn and the beginnings of the pawnshop industry – but there is not one concise history of pawning in one place on the internet that I can find.

When I wrote this piece recenty using Mario Lamberte’s 1988 paper written for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies I failed to realize what is just now dawning on me. In the paper Mr. Lamberte’s stated purpose of writing it was to help fill a missing space in pawnshop research. At the time little did I know how right he was.

As you search for pawn history what you come upon are mostly snippets of information from various pawn shop sites. The history below is from the website of The Chamber of Pawnbrokers of the Philippines. It is fairly typical of what you find for history of pawnbrokering on other websites.

As mankind’s oldest financial institution, pawnbroking carries on a tradition with a rich history.

Pawnbroking can be traced back at least 3,000 years to ancient China, and has been found in the earliest written histories of Greek and Roman civilizations.

In 1462 the Franciscans set up the montes pietatis, which granted interest-free loans to the poor, though they were later forced to charge interest to prevent premature exhaustion of their funds.

Public pawnshops existed briefly in the Middle-Ages but were re-established in the 18th century to free debtors from the high interest rates of private pawnshops.

Pawnbrokers, also known as collateral loan brokers, make loans based purely on the intrinsic value of the collateral.

Pawning has long been a source of capital for people in times of need, as well as a means of financing business ventures.

Today, statutory regulations of banking and finance are based on the legal foundation established by leaders in the banking industry had roots in pawn broking. As was the case 3,000 years ago, pawnshops continue to be a source of convenient credit for individuals in need of a short-term loan.

What i did find is this:

Almost every site I went to made mention of the fact that pawnbrokering can be traced back to China 3,000 years ago but there is never any real detail included with that mention.

this site gives typical versions of many of the stories you find universally on pawnsite websites:

Where Does the Pawnpbroker’s Symbol comes from?

The universal symbol of pawnbroking is three gold balls and is one of the most easily recognized in the world. The Medici families in Italy along with the Lombards in England were moneylenders in Europe. Legend has it that one of the Medicis in the employ of Emperor Charles the Great fought a giant and slew him with three sacks of rocks. The three balls or globes later became part of their family crest, and ultimately, the sign of pawnbroking.

Biblical References. First the Old Testament.

 Throughout history, pawnbrokers have been helping people. The Bible offers references to pawnbroking, and in Deuteronomy 24:6-13 it states: “No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge, for he taketh a man’s life to pledge”. What this means is: you should not take as a pledge anything a man needs to make a living. The same chapter also says: “Thou shalt not go into his house to fetch the pledge. Thou shalt stand abroad and the man to whom thou dost lend shall bring the pledge…unto thee.” Interestingly, often the debtor’s children could be used as a pledge (2 Kings,4:1-7). Also in Deuteronomy 23:21 the people were told not to take interest from their own countrymen – only from foreigners.

Then the New Testament.

Silver Sheckel

The moneychangers of Jesus’ time served two purposes. First they exchanged Antiochian Tetradrachms for the local currency (shekels), exacting a fee between 4% and 8% for their services. Second, they functioned as bankers and lenders. In the well-known Gospel story, Jesus overturned their tables because he didn’t feel the gates of the Temple were the right place to be conducting that business. In fact, such moneychangers set up shop there as a service, to deal with people who came to pay their half-shekel Temple tax. The rabbis insisted it be paid in silver didrachms of Tyre, which nobody carried.

St. Nicholas _ the Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers

From a different page on the same site comes the long version of the story of why Saint Nicholas (that’s right  in case you are wondering – that is the same St. Nick whose legend grew into Santa Claus) became “The Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers.”

And oh yes, the money to find the new world came from – you probably guessed already – pawning.

“Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her royal jewels to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.”

By far the most comprehensive site I found was Wikipedia. Here you get just a little more depth. For instance, as offered by the two paragraphs below:

In Hong Kong the practice follows the Chinese tradition, and the counter of the shop is typically higher than the average person for security. A customer can only hold up his hand to offer belongings and there is a wooden screen between the door and the counter for customers’ privacy. The symbol of a pawn shop in Hong Kong is a bat (the animal) holding a coin (Chinese: 蝠鼠吊金錢, Cantonese: fūk syú diu gām chín). The bat signifies fortune and the coin signifies benefits. In Japan, the usual symbol for a pawn shop is a circled digit seven, as “shichi”, the Japanese word for seven, sounds similar to the word for “pawn” (質).

Chinese Pawnbrokers Symbol

In India, the Marwari Jain community pioneered the pawnbroking business, but today others are involved; the work is done by many agents called “saudagar”. Instead of working from a shop, they go to needy people’s homes and motivate them to become involved in the business. Pawn shops are often run as part of jewelry stores. Gold, silver, and diamonds are frequently accepted as collateral. Pawnbroking is also a traditional trade in Thailand, where pawnshops are run both privately and by local governments.

But if you are thinking along the same lines I am the question becomes: Is that all there is? If pawning has a three-thousand year history why are there only these snippets on the web? My thought is that there has never really been a comprehensive history of pawning ever done. It appears that the history of pawning  is scattered through-out many different books in many different languages and cover many different lands and cultures . It makes me think there is space for an acamemic entrepreuer to have the field all to himself. So if you are an enterprising academic and would like to research a subject not covered by anyone else – that subject may be the history pawning.

Today I hoped to bring at least some of the history of pawning to the readers of MIM Pawnshop Skills and Services and to hopefully plant a seed that someone may come along and read this post and decide to do a more comprehensive study or book. Hopefully I have accomplished my goal. And with that I will retire for the day.


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