Three gold balls suspended from a bar, the pawnbrokers symbol, were first placed in front of Lombard bankers homes during the Middle Ages. Most people could not read but they knew that three gold balls was a place to borrow money. The Italian province of Lombardy is where pawn shop banking originated. The three gold balls are part of the coat of arms of the Medici banking family of Florence, Italy. According to legend this is attributed to Saint Nicholas, who anonymously delivered three bags of gold to a friend so his three daughters could be married after being ransomed. Today in images and paintings of Saint Nicholas he is often seen bearing three bags of gold. This benevolent gesture has made him the Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers.
The start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1820's brought pawn shops to the manufacturing areas of this country. Although generally paying low wages, it provided workers with enough money to acquire personal items and tools that could be pawned. This allowed them a money bridge between paydays providing cash for food and rent. Pawnshop loans were so essential that there was one item in pawn for every man, woman and child living in New York City during those times.
In the past 100 years, the number of pawn shops has skyrocketed in the United States. During the Great Depression era, pawn shops were the only institutions offering cash loans as banks were failing. Today, pawn shops are still the primary place people can convert their valuables into cash. They also serve as an area of exchange for people of all classes and backgrounds to buy and sell unique, rare or coveted items. Jewelry, precious metals, firearms, tools, electronics and musical instruments are the most commonly pawned valuables today.