The History of Pawn

As mankind’s oldest financial institution, pawn broking carries on a tradition with a rich history.  Pawn broking 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.  Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her crown jewels to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America.  The word pawn originates from the Latin word “platinum” which means cloth or clothing.  The nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel” refers to pawning.  Weasel is derived from “weasel and stoat” meaning coat and to “pop” was to pawn.  It was tradition for even poor people to own a suit or coat, which they wore as their “Sunday Best” When times were hard they would pawn their suit or coat on a Monday and claim it back before Sunday.  Hence the line in the nursery rhyme that keeps repeating is “That’s the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel”.

The pawnbrokers’ symbol is three spheres suspended from a bar.  The three sphere symbol is attributed to the Medici family of Florence, Italy, owning to its symbolic meaning of Lombard.  This refers to the Italian region of Lombardy, where pawn shop banking originated under the name of Lombard banking.  The three golden spheres were originally the symbol medieval Lombard merchants hung in front of their houses, and not the arms of the Medici family.  It has been conjectured the golden spheres were originally three flat yellow effigies of byznats, or gold coins, laid heraldically upon a sable field, but they were converted into spheres to better attract attention.

Most European towns called the pawn shop the “Lombard”.  The House of Lombard was the banking community in medieval London, England.  According to legend, a Medici employed by Charlemagne slew a giant using three bags of rocks.  The three-ball symbol became the family crest.  Since the Medicis were so successful in the financial, banking and money lending industries, other families also adopted the symbol.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers (citation).  The symbol has also been attributed to the story of Nicholas giving a poor man’s three daughters each a bag of gold so they could get married.

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