5 Things You Didn't Know About Pawnbroking

You might know that pawnshops are a popular place to find great deals on jewelry, electronics and other valuables. But there's plenty about pawn shops and pawnbroking that you might not know about. The following offers 5 little-known facts about pawnbroking:

Pawn Shops Have Been Around for Longer than You'd Think

The idea of pawning possessions for temporary cash has a history that stretches thousands of years. The ancient Chinese were among the first to try their hand at pawnbroking over 3,000 years ago, with most of those early establishments owned and operated by Buddhist monasteries.

Pawnbroking eventually spread to ancient Greece and Rome. There were even restrictions under Roman law on what could and couldn't be pawned. For example, equipment used to till and tend to fields, as well as furniture and clothes, couldn't be pledged for a loan to a pawnbroker.

The International Pawn Symbol's Origins

The three balls that make up the international pawn symbol are unmistakable, but most people don't know about its origins. Even historians aren't completely sure of where it definitively comes from. Some believe that the symbol originated with the Renaissance-era House of Medici. Legend has it that a member of the Medici family slew a giant using three bags of rocks.

The symbol later became a part of the family crest. Meanwhile, bankers throughout the Italian province of Lombardy -- where European pawnbroking got its start -- adopted the symbol to attract customers and passersby.

Another theory involves Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Greek bishop who is also considered the patron saint of pawnbroking. According to a well-known tale, Saint Nicholas came to the aid of a man who didn't have any money to put up dowries for his three daughters, without which they wouldn't be able to find husbands.

Under the cover of night and on three different occasions, Saint Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins for each daughter. The three sacks of gold would later be immortalized into the three balls that make up the pawn symbol today.

A Pawn Could Have Helped Finance America's Discovery

Christopher Columbus's first journey to the New World in 1492 could have been funded in small part by Queen Isabella of Spain. While the majority of her crown jewels had been pawned to raise funds for the siege of Baeza, the Spanish queen pledged some of her lesser jewelry to Columbus to help fund his famous voyage.

As it turned out, Columbus didn't need the help, after all. Queen Isabella's pledge helped attract funding from other sources, including the Santa Hermandad, a medieval military peacekeeping organization. Nevertheless, the myth that the queen put her jewels in hock for Columbus' voyage still persists to this day.

The Melody "Pop Goes the Weasel" Involves Pawn

This popular nursery rhyme from the 17th century may have more to do with pawnshops than you'd think. According to the Straight Dope's Cecil Adams, the verses of the unmistakable ditty may describe what happens when one spends too much time in the pub and not enough at work, which is the cobbler's bench, in this case. Adams mentions that some people believe the phrase "pop goes the weasel" is derived from Cockney slang, meaning "to pawn one's coat."

The Vast Majority of Customers Get Their Items Back

According to the National Pawnbrokers Association, approximately 80 percent of customers who take out a pawn loan manage to repay their loans and get their collateral back. Given the relatively small borrowing amounts and short terms of typical pawn loans, they're much easier to pay back than most conventional loans. There's also little risk involved, since borrowers only lose the collateral they've put up for pawn if the loan isn't repaid.