Have you ever visited a Chicago pawn shop?
Pawn shops have existed for over 3000 years globally, and pawn shops in Chicago date back to at least 1881, when T.N. Donnelly & Company, America’s oldest pawn shop, was founded. But to truly understand Chicago pawn shops, we have to look to the Middle Ages in Europe.
According to Wendy Woloson’s book, In Hock, pawn brokers in Europe emerged “as a distinct profession” in the Middle Ages. She quotes Kenneth Hudson, a writer from the early 20th century, to explain that these proto-modern pawn shops were built to serve the wealthiest of Europe. Hudson wrote that pawn shops in the Middle Ages served to finance “the needs of powerful and ambitious rulers, who required money to finance wars and the building of castles, palaces, and churches, and to maintain a standard of living which they considered appropriate to their rank, power and social position”.
Chicago Pawners & Jewlers
While some European countries experimented with “non-profit” pawn shops, they initially failed because of the corruption of their managers and investors. Independent pawn shops remained common but did not proliferate until the First Industrial Revolution in the 18th century (1700s). They were especially common in England’s industrial centers, like Manchester and London. Pawn shops grew in number to serve not just aristocrats and royalty, but to serve a growing population of city-based consumers and workers. Those workers, unlike their peasant ancestors, had possessions and material goods that could collateralize a loan.
Pawn shops did not make their way to America– let alone to Chicago, Illinois– until the early 19th century, the 1800s. When they came, they raised the same concerns that they did in Europe. Pawn shops were perceived as against feudal Christian order, in which most varieties of money lending were banned. However, early economists and political thinkers like Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham argued in favor of them. They believed that, as a rule, flexible lines of credit could help grow the economy and wealth of the population.
Devon Pawn Shop INC
It’s hard to say exactly when Chicago pawn shops first emerged. But like most pawn shops in America, they grew alongside the rest of the city, and their composition reflected its industries. Chicago has the distinction of having the country’s oldest pawn shop,T.N. Donnelly & Company. In Chicago, use of pawn shops was closely tied to the fortunes of the manufacturing and food production industries. Pawn shops allowed workers to work longer shifts by giving them easier credit.