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.

During the Middle Ages, certain usury laws imposed by the Church prohibited the charging of interest on loans, thus limiting pawn broking to people who had religious beliefs outside of the Church. Out of economic necessity, and because of problems in the banking system, pawnshops made resurgence in later years. The House of the Lombard operated pawnshops throughout Europe. Legend contends that they even counted royalty, such as King Edward III of England, among their clientele during the 14th century. The symbol of the Lombard’s' operations was the three gold balls that still remain the trademark.

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

Historical Facts and Legends

The Nursery Rhyme "Pop Goes The Weasel" refers to pawning. A weasel is a shoemaker's tool and to "pop" is to pawn. "That's the way the money goes... Pop goes the weasel."

There are several versions of this famous nursery rhyme. We present our favourite for your enjoyment.

The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey thought 'twas all in fun
Pop! Goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread
A penny for a needle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

A half a pound of tupenny rice,
A half a pound of treacle.
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

Up and down the London road,
In and out of the Eagle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! Goes the weasel.

I've no time to plead and pine,
I've no time to wheedle,
Kiss me quick and then I'm gone
Pop! Goes the weasel.

Queen Isabella of Spain pawned the crown jewels to finance Columbus' voyage to America. The word pawn originates from the Latin word "patinum" which means cloth or clothing. The French word "pan" refers to a skirt or blouse. In the early centuries, the principle assets people had were their clothes and borrowed money by pawning their clothing.

The universal symbol of pawn broking is three gold balls and is one of the most easily recognized in the world. The Medici families in Italy along with the Lombard’s in England were moneylenders in Europe. Legend has it that one of the Medici’s 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 pawn broking.

Throughout history, pawnbrokers have been helping people. The Bible offers references to pawn broking, 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.

According to ancient Mesopotamian law, the rates of interest charged - even in those days - were 20% for silver, and 33% for grain.

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.

The Legendary Origins of the Pawnbroker Symbol

The Least Known Legend . One of the least known origins that has been researched is the coin known as the "Silver Shekel" or "Shekel of Israel" which was issued in A.D. 68 after a Jewish revolt against the Romans. One side of the coin depicted three pomegranates, with a common stalk.

The Traditional Legend of the Three Balls . The symbol of the three balls was part of the coat of arms of the Medici family, who established the Medici trading and banking empire in Florence, Italy. The Medici’s were a 15th century Italian family of bankers and lenders, with considerable fame and fortune. They became so well known in the finance and lending profession that the other lenders, wanting to share in their success, adopted similar coats of arms, signs, shields and symbols, with three golden balls being the most popular. Once other merchants involved in monetary dealing adopted the three golden balls as their symbol, the three balls came to symbolize the entire profession founded on the ethic of mutual trust.

Throughout the Middle ages you can find many coats of arms bearing three balls, orbs, plates, disks, coins, and more as symbolic of monetary success.

When Italian bankers began to open branches abroad, the symbol of the three golden balls spread to the European West. It is known that there was pawn broking in Spain because Queen Isabella pawned some of her royal jewels to finance Columbus' long voyage to the New World. I wonder if the pawnbroker who made that loan knew just what he was starting?

The symbol of the three golden balls was brought to the United States from England, where pawnbrokers still display the symbol to this day.

Saint Nicholas and his Three Gifts of Gold . The figure of Saint Nicholas is a legend from the Orthodox Russian Church. He was said to be very kind to the poor

There are few other mythology characters and heroes of folklore who have embraced our hearts and collective spirit as has "Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra."

In Turkey, Myra (now Demre) is where Saint Nicholas gained his world-renowned fame. Born around the year 280 in Patara, fifty miles west of Myra (Demre), into a well to do Christian family, young Nicholas was ordained into the priesthood when he was nineteen years old. When his Uncle and namesake, the Bishop Nicholas, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Nicholas was appointed as deputy to oversee the monastery, which the elder Nicholas had built. Thus began the 'life of enlightenment' of the 'boy bishop' Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas and the Pawnbroker. Through his great acts of kindness and generosity, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of many; of seafaring men, of marriageable young women, of the falsely accused, of endangered travelers, of farmers, of children (of course), of merchants, and of pawnbrokers. Pawnbrokers and bankers in northern Italy, who would look to Saint Nicholas as their patron saint, would hang three golden balls above the doors of their shops in tribute to, and for good luck from, their Saint Nicholas.

Another legend tells of the pawnbroker who made a loan to a friend with no collateral to secure the debt. The friend however swears on the icon of Saint Nicholas that he will repay the loan from the pawnbroker on a fixed date. When that date comes around, and the debt is due the pawnbroker, his friend refuses to pay the debt, insisting that he owes the pawnbroking nothing. To settle the matter, the borrower and the pawnbroker take their case to court for the judge to decide. The debtor declares under oath that he has given the borrowed money back to the pawnbroker. Technically, the debtor spoke the truth, for unknown to all in the court, he had secretly deposited the exact sum of money owed into a hollow shaft of his walking cane, which he had tricked the pawnbroker into holding while he declared his oath of repayment. With no evidence of guilt, the judge of the court decides in favour of the debtor. This dismayed the pawnbroker who felt betrayed by his patron Saint Nicholas.

Leaving the court, the crooked borrower was making his way home, and after becoming fatigued, was forced by exhaustion to lie down by the side of the road to rest where he fell into a deep, trance-like sleep, from which no passer-by could awake him. Unable to wake or move him, a passers-by watched in horror as the crooked borrower was run over by a runaway horse and wagon, and he suffered a painful death. The passers-by then notice lying on the road, the valuable contents of the debtor's walking cane that had been broken open by the wheel of the wagon. The passers-by called the pawnbroker and the judge to the scene of the accident. The pawnbroker counts the spillage of coins to find that they total the exact amount borrowed from him, but he refuses to take the money while his one-time friend lies lifeless.

The pawnbroker prays that if the power of Saint Nicholas is great enough to take the life of the crooked debtor to expose his fraudulent claim, surely the good and merciful Saint could bring his friend back to life.

Heartened by the good will and generosity of the pawnbroker, Saint Nicholas obeys the prayer, and miraculously, the debtor opens his eyes, stands, and walks to the pawnbroker. He repays all the money he owed.

The story of the debtor and the pawnbroker helped establish the role of Saint Nicholas as the protector of financial integrity and guardian of commitments made in good faith.

Deed of Generosity . Even before the young Nicholas had become a priest, a repeated deed of generosity symbolically characterized the beloved Saint. As the legend goes, the generous deed was bestowed upon a widowed nobleman who lived in the same town as Nicholas and his parents. The nobleman, once wealthy, but now without a penny, found himself desperate and unable to take care of his three teenage daughters.

To support himself and his two youngest daughters, the one-time nobleman conspired with an evil woman who agreed to buy and sell his oldest daughter into slavery or 'ill repute.' Hearing of the poor man's plight, the young Nicholas tied three hundred florins into a handkerchief, resembling a small, round sack. One evening, after dark, Nicholas secretly threw the small, round sack of gold coins through an open window in the poor man's house. Then as quietly as he came, young Nicholas hurried away from the house and into the shadows of the night.

The next morning, when the gold coins were found, the poor man and his daughters blessed their anonymous 'gift-giver', and used the money as a dowry so that his oldest girl could be married. Their household was able to survive for a time, but soon the poor man and his daughters were again in financial straits. With nowhere else to turn, the man again colluded with the evil woman who agreed to buy and sell his now oldest daughter. However, before this could happen, the young Nicholas heard of the poor mans struggle, and again threw a second small, round sack of gold coins through an open window in the man's house, silently disappearing into the dark of night.

The next morning, the gold coins were found, and the poor man and his two daughters blessed their mysterious gift-giver, because the now oldest daughter could be married using the money as her dowry. The poor man and his last remaining daughter survived well enough for a while, but after time passed they found themselves once again in desperate need, and the man returned to the evil woman who agreed to buy and sell his last remaining daughter. Hearing of the poor man's desperation, young Nicholas again came secretly to the man's house and threw a third small, round sack of gold coins through an open window. This time however, the man spotted Nicholas trying to make his silent getaway.

When the man caught up to him, he told Nicholas, "If you had not saved us in time, our family would have been destroyed, materially and morally." A modest and noble man, Nicholas was much too humble to accept such praise, and said, "Please, do not tell anyone of this deed as long as I live." The man agreed, and not until the death of Saint Nicholas did he ever tell a single soul.

Though the generous Saint of Myra may be historically known as Saint Nicholas, his spirit has bred many other names. In other countries he is known as Sankt Nicholas, Sint Nicholas, Santa Klass, Father Christmas, Pere Noel, Befana, and Krist Kindlein. Of course, we know him as jolly old Santa Claus. But whatever the name, the emotion evoked by his image remain the same. The universal values of good will and generosity transcend time and tradition, and the need to love and to be loved are characteristic traits of Saint Nicholas to which all aspire.

The transformation of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas or Father January occurred first in Germany, then in countries where the Reformed Churches were the majority, and finally in France, the feast day being celebrated on Christmas or New Year's Day. Dutch Protestant settlers in New Amsterdam ( New York City) replaced Saint Nicholas (Sinter Claes) with the benevolent magician who became known as Santa Claus, thus contributing further to his spreading folklore.