The History of Pawn: How and When Did It Start?


History of Pawn: Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her crown jewelsThe history of pawn* can be traced back thousands of years. The word pawn is derived from the Latin word pignus, for pledge or pawn. A pawnbroker is an individual or business that loans people money and uses personal items as a pledge to repay the loan.  If the loan is not repaid, the pawnbroker will sell the property. While many items can be pawned, the most common are jewelry, gold, musical instruments, computers, video game systems, televisions, cameras, power tools, and other valuable items as collateral.

Pawnbroking first started in ancient China by Buddhist monks over 3,000 years ago to give loans to peasants and small businesses. The practice also was recorded in ancient Greece and throughout the Roman Empire. Some pawnbrokers operated independently, but over time most pawn loans were made through pawn shops.

The History of the Pawn Symbol

Many traditional shops use iconic symbols to identify their trade. The use of symbols dates back to a time in Europe when most people were unable to read or write. Instead, people would rely on symbols to identify shops in their villages. Over time, the use of these symbols carried over and many are still in use today. The traditional symbol for pawn shops is three gold balls suspended from a bar. While this has come to be a well-known symbol for pawn shops, the origins of the symbol are not clear.

The Lombard’s of England

There are many stories associated with the history of pawn and the meaning of the symbol. In medieval Europe, prominent families such as the Lombard’s of England and the Medici’s of Italy became money-lending families. The medieval Lombard merchants used the three golden spheres as a symbol. They are said to have hung the spheres in front of their houses. The golden spheres are thought to have represented byzants, which were gold coins at the time.  In London, England, a pawn shop was called a Lombard, and banks were called The House of Lombard. By this time, kings and queens used the practice to raise money. England’s King Edward III famously pawned his jewels to the Lombard’s in 1388 to finance the war against France. Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her jewelry to fund Christopher Columbus’ expeditions to the New World.

The Medici’s of Italy

History of Pawn: The three gold balls is the historical symbol of pawn

While the Medici family may not have been the original users of the symbol, there is a legend about how the three ball symbol made its way onto their coat of arms. The legend claims that a Medici hired Charlemagne to slay a giant using three bags of rocks. From that day forward, the Medici crest used the three balls. Other families adopted the use of the three balls because of the financial success of the Medici family. The gold balls were used throughout the Middle Ages on crests as a symbol of prosperity. * History of pawnbroking


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