Pawnshop Trivia - An Industry Through The Ages

Nursery Rhymes

Did you know that some experts believe the nursery rhyme "Pop Goes the Weasel' is about pawning? In early England, the word 'Pop' meant to pawn. 'Weasel' is short for 'Weasel and Stoat' which is cockney rhyming slag for 'Coat'. The ryhme talks about pawning a coat to meet common expenses:

A penny for a ball of thread

Another for a needle

That’s the way the money goes

pop goes the weasel.

A rather famous drinking establishment of the time was the Eagle Tavern. It seems that even hundreds of years ago an overzealous night out might leave one a bit short financially come the morning:

Up and down the City road

In and out the Eagle

That’s the way the money goes

Pop goes the weasel.


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. Below you’ll find some of the more interesting bits of trivia with dates noted when possible.

Cuneiform loan agreement from 1800BC - modern pawn tickers are a lot smaller!

-image from Bank of Italy

270 AD: Bishop Nikolaus of Myra is born. He was famed for secret gift giving and was eventually sainted, becoming Saint Nikolaus. Yes, he was the inspiraton behind Santa Claus. He is the patron saint of bankers and moneylenders including pawnbrokers.
482 AD: Chinese Prime Minister Chu Yu’An, having pawned several items, passes away. His younger brother Cheng recovers his pledged goods which include a fur pillow. Cheng has this pillow cut up to make items for himself. Unfortunately for him it turns out the the pillow had been a gift from the Emperor so Cheng is impeached and dismissed in 483. Ooops.
600 AD: Commonly attributed to the 7th century the biblical Book of Deuteronomy discusses pawning “No man shall take the nether or the upper millstone to pledge: for he taketh [a man’s] life to pledge”. Paraphrased, you shall not pledge the tools by which a person earns their living.
618 AD+: Buddhist monks of the T’ang dynasty economize pawning. Although originally intended to help people by lending them farm implements by the end of the dynasty it was being run as a profitable enterprise.
1388 AD: Even royalty have their cash flow problems. King Edward III pawned the crown jewels to finance a war with France. Who knows, maybe the French had it coming?
1464 AD: Two Franciscan monks named Barnabo da Terni and Fortunato Coppoli founded the first modern vision of a pawnshop. Conceived as a charitable organization it provided collateral secured loans to the public interest free so long as you tithed regularly to the church.
1485 AD: The man who would be named King Henry the VII ‘pawned’ the Marquis of Dorset and Sir Thomas Boucher as collateral for a loan. He borrowed 6000 marks from the populace of London to buy them back. We’re pretty sure that’s not legal anymore.
1492 AD: Christopher Columbus struggles to raise funding for his voyage of discovery. A longtime supporter Queen Isabella of Spain offers to pawn her crown jewels to finance Columbus’ voyage to America if the treasury ran short. That probably would have been the most influential loan in history.
1595 AD: Renaissance Europe didn’t have reality TV, but they did have the theatre. Famed playright William Shakespeare frequently discusses pawning items ranging from the royal crown (Richard II) to servingware and furnishings (King Henry IV).
1598 AD: Ben Johnson pens ‘Every Man in His Humor‘. It mentions pawning no less than 11 times in relation to clothes, jewelry and even a rapier:

Bob. Pawn! we have none to the value of his demand.

Mat. O, yes; I’ll pawn this jewel in my ear, and you may pawn your silk stockings, and pull up your boots, they will ne’er be mist: it must be done now.

1775 AD: During the US revolutionary war pawnbrokers helped Robert Morris obtain financing to continue the war effort. Morris went on the sign something called The Declaration of Independence.
1797 AD: Napoleon “acquires” the 140 carat “Regent” diamond which he promptly pawns to finance his war effort. When he redeems it he has it mounted in his coronation sword. It now rests at the Louvre in Paris.
1838 AD: The famed Simpson’s Pawnshop in the US provides us with historical records of an average day. Clothing was much more difficult to produce and constituted a staple of the pawn loan trade. Records show loans of $0.25 for a vest, $0.50 for a shirt and $4.00 for a coat. Interestingly enough, $4 was also pledged on a violin so you can compare values.
1842-1852 AD: William Booth works as a pawnbroker before going on to found the SALVATION ARMY. True story.
1853 AD: W.R. Mondale composes the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ which is about pawning and the life of the common man.
1866-1876 AD: Famed Russian author Fyodor Doestoevksy publishes several pieces involving pawnbrokers and pawnshops. Works include his famed novel Crime and Punishment as well as A Gentle Creature in 1876. Doestoevsky himself was no stranger to pawnshops writing about pledging his watch to pay bills.
1891: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes ‘The Adventure of the Red Headed League’, a Sherlock Holmes adventure set in a pawnshop.


1916: Famed actor Charlie Chaplin stars in ‘The Pawnshop’, a comedic piece which casts him as the apprentice in a pawn shop. View it online for free HERE.
1932: The Hope Diamond, one of the world’s most famous and valuable diamonds in the world spent some time in a pawnbroker’s vault. Heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean pledged the diamond to help finance the search for the missing child of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.
1971: Diane von Furstenberg the famed fashion designer financed her company by pawning her wedding ring. Her current estimated net worth is 1.2 BILLION dollars (2013).
2004: Pepsi runs a national TV ad featuring a young Jimi Hendrix purchasing his first guitar at a pawnshop next to pop vending machine. While we’d love for this to be true sadly it’s not. As far as we know Jimi’s dad bought him a guitar from the store at that location but it was a music store at the time.
2009: History TV airs the first episode of Pawnstars(TM). The show is a smash hit pulling down as many as 7.5 million viewers. There are now well over 200 episodes and it’s one of the highest rated reality TV shows.

Information for this page was found in these fine publications and websites:

“Buddhist Monasteries and the Four Money-Raising Institutions In Chinese History”, by Lien-Sheng Yang
“Fringe Banking: Check-Cashing Outlets, Pawnshops, and the Poor” by John Caskey, ISBN 9780871541802
“Hockshop” by William R. Simpson
“In Hock“, by Wendy A. Woloson, ISBN: 9780226905679
“Pawnonomics” by Steve Krupnik, ISBN: 9781439225738
Ronald Suleski (1998). Review of Asada Taiz? ‘Ch?goku shichiya gy?shi’ The Journal of Asian Studies, 57, pp 480-481. doi:10.2307/2658848.