Pawning: the three balls lost and found
Late last winter, I was contacted by curator Nancy Davis, who wanted to talk about the history of pawning in America, something I know a bit about since it is the subject of my recent book, In Hock. I was happy to hear that pawning would be among the many personal financial strategies represented in the Smithsonian’s sweeping exhibition on the history of Americans and their money, American Enterprise.
Briefly, pawning is a form of collateral lending. Prospective borrowers bring to a pawnshop “movable property” – that is, an item they can physically take to a pawnbroker, like a piece of jewelry, an iPod, or a leather jacket. This is a “pawn.” A pawnbroker will typically loan a pawner about one-third of the resale price of the collateral. But often this amount is much less, especially when it comes to items such as electronics, which quickly become obsolete and can be purchased new almost as cheaply. Unlike other forms of credit, pawnshop loans are typically for small amounts, set at simple (rather than compound) interest rates, extend over very brief amounts of time, and can be obtained immediately.
When I pawned a gold chain at a Philadelphia pawnshop (part of researching my book), I received $40 in cash, was charged 3% interest per month, and was given five months to pay it back. If I didn’t pay back the loan (which I did), the collateral – my chain – would have been “unredeemed.” In that case, I would keep the $40 free and clear, but the pawnbroker would become the new owner of my chain, and could resell it or melt it down as he saw fit to recoup his money and ideally realize a profit. This form of lending has been practiced since at least fifth-century China and became popular across Europe during the Middle Ages.
During our conversation, Nancy asked me if I knew where she could find an original pawnshop sign. A cluster of three balls on a stalk symbolizes pawnbroking, and there are various theories about its origins. The most convincing, I think, is that it derives from the motifs decorating the coats of arms of Medieval families in the banking business. Gold “bezants,” or disks, represented money and were part of many official crests. Here’s an example of the professional coat of arms of British pawnbrokers:
Because so many people were illiterate, shopkeepers typically hung three-dimensional signs at their entrances representing the goods or services they provided within. Hence, the gold disks, rendered in three dimensions, became balls. Here is a detail of William Hogarth’s 18th-century print, “Gin Lane,” showing pawnbroker S. Gripe’s sign prominently displayed:
When pawnbrokers established themselves in American cities in the early 19th century, they used these same signs, which would have been quite familiar to immigrants who had seen them in their home countries. An early example is this 1828 advertisement from a city directory for Philadelphia pawnbroker Stephen Blatchford, which contains a depiction of his sign of the three balls:
What is remarkable is how enduring this symbol became, hung outside of pawnshops throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.
Given that the sign of the three balls is now disappearing from the commercial landscape, what were the odds that I might know of a pawnshop that still had (and would part with) their original sign? Or did I have any other ideas? As it happened, being an intrepid flea market and antiques junkie – which might explain my interest in pawning to begin with – I knew of a possible source, but it was a long-shot. Many years ago I came across an old pawnshop sign in an antique shop in a small town in upstate, New York. I’d always regretted not buying it, but at the time I just could not imagine what I might do with it. I remembered the town but not the name of the shop, and didn’t even know if it was still in business and if so, whether they still had the sign. What were the chances?
When I finally found a phone number and called the proprietor (the shop has no website), I explained what I was looking for and why. He said he would check his stock and get back to me. And lo, within a few days I received the happy news – he did still have the sign, and he was setting it aside for me. It is likely from the Binghamton, New York area, probably dates from the Depression era, and has all the indications of being handmade by a professional sign maker or metal worker.
The next weekend I hit the road with packing material in the back of my car and a check in hand, thrilled at the prospect of rescuing this humble, yet extremely significant object. (I would come to find out later that this sign would be one of the last things leaving the antique shop — after decades in business, the proprietor closed his doors not long after my rescue mission, dispersing the remainder of his inventory at auction). By the time I was able to finally deliver the sign of the three balls to the Smithsonian in July, I had become quite attached to it. But I was still happy to donate it to the exhibition, knowing that it has found its place as an important icon in the history of Americans’ economies and will be seen by countless numbers of people – many of whom know nothing of the history of pawnbroking, and others who, as pawners, know it quite well.