By RIC BLUM
Pawning in America is something we all seem to know something about, in modern times, but many of us are not familiar with the history of our beloved industry in the United States. Wendy A. Woloson fills in both pawnbrokers and the general public on the critical role pawnbroking has played in our country in her recently released book, IN HOCK: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
The dust cover of the book describes it as follows:
“Puncturing the myth of the seamy storefront stocked with stolen watches and overseen by a shifty proprietor, In Hock reveals that pawnshops have long played an integral role in Americans’ economic lives.
“The definitive history of pawnbroking in the United States from the nation’s founding through the Great Depression, this volume demonstrates that the practice was inextricably intertwined with the rise of capitalism. The class of working poor begotten by this economic tide could make ends meet, Wendy Woloson argues, only by regularly visiting pawnshops to supplement their inadequate wages. Nonetheless, businessmen, reformers, and cultural critics berated the shops for promoting vice and used anti-Semitic stereotypes to cast their proprietors as greedy and cold-hearted. Parsing and subverting these caricatures, Woloson shows that pawnbrokers were in fact shrewd businessmen, often from humble origins, who honed sophisticated knowledge of a wide range of goods and their values in different markets.
“In the process, she paints a resonant portrait of the generations of Americans whose struggle for economic survival often depended on an institution that has remained, until now, woefully misunderstood.”
Today’s Pawnbroker: First, how about telling us a little about your background.
Wendy Woloson: I’m a historian by trade, receiving my PhD in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. An active artist as well, I teach printmaking classes in Philadelphia. For almost 15 years I worked at the Library Company of Philadelphia, a special collections library founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. I’m currently working as a consultant for a publishing company that is digitizing archival material to put online.
TP: What other books or papers have you written?
WW: My first book with the unwieldy title, Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in 19th-Century America, was published in 2002 and grew out of my dissertation. I am interested in how people make meanings out of inanimate objects and was struck by how “feminized” sugar is in our culture. We associate sweet things with women and children (“sugar and spice and everything nice”), but why? I tried to figure out how this happened, especially given that sugar was once a sign of power and masculinity. That all changed in the 19th century when it was no longer such a rare and prized substance.
I’ve also written several articles for various publications, from a scholarly article in the Journal of the Early Republic on early pawning practices in America to an article for Antiques Magazine on the Library Company’s book collection. And I’ve given talks on everything from the world history of sugar to 19th-century auction scams.
TP: How did you choose pawning in America as the subject matter for your book?
WW: It came from a few things. First, I think historians are ultimately writing our autobiographies. I grew up in a family interested in and obsessed by things. We are all inveterate collectors of stuff. And my grandparents were antique dealers and ran a shop out of their house in upstate, New York. So I was exposed to old things as a kid, and was often taken to antique shows and flea markets to help out at their booth if they were selling or to help tote things around if they were buying.
In Hock also continues, from Refined Tastes, my interest in our material surroundings – what our possessions mean to us. As a 19th-century historian, I was curious about the rise of consumer culture and what, if anything, second-hand goods might have meant to a society which was, all of a sudden, valuing new things. As the industrial revolution ramped up, people could buy brand new goods that had until recently been out of their reach. They traded, bartered for, and repaired things much less often. It was the beginning of our throw-away society.
My intention was to write a book about “secondary” (used goods) markets, including auctions, junk shops, and pawnshops. I started with pawnbroking because I thought it would be the easiest piece of the puzzle to put together, but very quickly realized it was an important topic and could be an entire book of its own.
TP: Is historical pawnbroking really an interesting subject matter except to a chosen few?
WW: Yes. Absolutely. Historians are increasingly interested in the lives of “ordinary people” who might not have been successful or famous. I think I’ve single-handedly brought people around to the importance of pawnbroking in American history. And I was particularly responding to economic historians, who tend to valorize capitalism and see America as one great success story.
My story of pawning actually shows how wrong this success story is. A few people were successful and did very well for themselves. But the sheer volume of pawning activity shows that most people did not do well within capitalism, contrary to what the upper and middle classes were saying.
Failure – or rather, just getting by – was more the norm than was financial success and material comfort, no matter how hard a person worked.
TP: Were many historical myths about pawnbroking debunked from your research or were they proven to be true?
WW: In Hock is all about disputing the myths and stereotypes that most people believe about pawnbroking. I cannot think of one popular myth the book does not in some way debunk.
It was in the interest of the select few who were benefiting from the low wages and general exploitation of capitalism (owners and managers) to portray pawning as an “aberrant” activity that was beyond the realm of the norm. These people blamed pawners for being bad – “profligate” – with their money and blamed pawnbrokers for being hard-hearted and greedy.
Anti-Semitism crops up frequently in these critiques of pawnbrokers. Many of the early pawnbrokers in American were Jewish. They were also good businessmen who provided an essential service to countless numbers of people who needed quick cash and had no other way to get it. Critics blamed them for exploiting their customers and for being preoccupied with money, holding them to standards they didn’t apply to other businessmen in the retail and wholesale trades.
As the 19th century wore on, the anti-Semitism came to the fore, became even uglier, and appeared in illustrations as well as in text. Especially after the Civil War it was common to see cartoons of pawnbrokers with a hooked nose, big hands, and black curly hair wearing shabby clothes and diamond jewelry – showing Jews as ethnic (and not Mayflower descendants), greedy (big hands) and cheap (wearing used clothes), yet ostentatious.
I also debunk the myth that pawnbrokers were fences for stolen goods. From research I was doing at the time and subsequent work, I can say that junk dealers were the main traffickers of stolen goods during this time. Interestingly, as Jews were the first pawnbrokers in America, the Irish tended to run the first junk shops. By the end of the 19th century, as the Jewish pawnbrokers moved into retail trades, the Irish took over their pawnshops.
TP: What were the most interesting facts or details that you discovered about pawnbroking?
WW: I think it was the pervasiveness of pawning in America. Initially, I guess I had myself come to believe the idea that pawning was somehow a “marginal” or “fringe” activity, without actually realizing it. When I began doing the research, I found references to pawning all over – newspaper ads for auctions of unredeemed collateral, pawnbrokers listed in city directories and counted in census records, references to pawning in magazines, stories about pawnbrokers in popular fiction.
I couldn’t believe that such an important subject in the history of American life and culture had been completely ignored by historians. Pawnshops were early banks before banks became lending institutions. People struggled to make do and figured pawning into their household economies. Women were frequent pawners, and often understood the value of domestic goods – linens, clothes, cooking utensils – more than their husbands did.
Pawning was also incredibly social. The early ledger book from the 1830s shows consecutive transactions from women who lived down the street from each other. They pawned and redeemed their petticoats on the same days. I like to think they knew each other and went together.
Also – and this really surprises people, as it did me – were the incredibly high redemption rates throughout the entire century, even during times of financial panics and depressions. Over 90 percent was common and upwards of 98 percent at some places was not unheard of. And I could go on.
TP: Having read your book, I find your penchant for historical detail and personal accounts amazing. This must have been very time consuming. How long did it take your to write this book?
WW: All told it took about five years of research and writing, and then another year or so for the book to go through production, from getting feedback from outside readers to copy-editing the manuscript to indexing.
TP: Was it difficult to get your book published?
WW: I was casting about for a while looking for a suitable publisher. Finally, a friend who had published with the University of Chicago put me in touch with the editor there.
We met for coffee, I explained the project (after I explained pawnbroking itself!), and things progressed fairly quickly from there. He really wanted the book for his press, and asked me to write a book proposal. Once it was approved by the board, he put a contract in the mail to me. It’s a well-respected press but I’m certainly not going to get rich from the book.
TP: When and where can we expect to see your new book?
WW: In Hock should be out soon. You can order it from Amazon right now, and it might end up on the shelves of specialty bookshops.
Even though it has footnotes, the book should appeal to anyone who might be interested in the topic, but people probably won’t see it featured at their local Barnes & Noble.
TP: What’s your next project going to be?
WW: I haven’t decided yet. I’ve just begun research on two different topics. One is on the history of retail premiums (also called “incentives” and “inducements”) which were used in marketing long before the free prizes in Cracker Jack. Using free things to sell consumer goods is interesting to me.
But I’m also interested in early junk shops, the reuse of goods and their movement through tertiary markets – even more removed from retail than pawnshops. So far I’ve concentrated on the role of child thieves in supplying junk shops.
The story is a familiar one about poverty, getting by, and the creative ways people made do in often harrowing circumstances – something a lot of us can relate to today.