There is a stigma about pawnshops. For many people the perception of these venerable financial institutions with more than a one thousand year history is that they are dark, smoky denizens for shady character’s. An argument could be made that this Hollywood’s fault.
In the film noir classic Conflict that starred Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Alexis Smith, a dimly lit pawn shop figures prominnetly, In this movie that released in 1945 the pawn shop with its cast of shady characters is central to solving a murder. A quick Google search leaves little doubt, the pawn shop has been used often to set a mood in dozens of movies about crime, the underworld, and even murder. From Pulp Fiction to The Mystery Man released in 1935 the perception that the pawn shop was on par with a seedy brothel has been nurtured.
This is in stark contrast to the reality. Just consider the Kingman locations of Pawn World, northwest Arizona’s largest hand gun and rifle store. Pawn World is a one stop shop for all manner of tools, gold and silver coins, knives, used musical equipment and even electronics.
The perception derived from movies is actually a disservice to the most pawnshops and pawnshop owners. A surprising number of historic events and personalities are linked to pawnshops. As an example, consider a story Ulysses S. Grant told about his visit to a pawn shop.
The Financial Panic of 1857 left many Americans in a precarious position. Grant was one of these financially strapped Americans. He was a thirty-five-year-old ex-army officer, a struggling farmer, and the father of three children. And his wife was pregnant.
It was with reluctance that he made a visit to the pawn shop of J. S. Freligh that cold winters day. According to the ticket the item pawned for $22.00 was a “gold hunting watch with detached lever and gold chain.” By signing the ticket Grant authorized Freligh to sell the watch and chain at public or private sale.
In these years the pawnshop was viewed with the same respect, or disdain, given a bank. And there was a code of ethics for the pawn shop owner. Grant was never able to reclaim his watch. It was sold and the ticket was kept by the Freligh family until 1910. When asked why the ticket singned by a former had not been sold sooner, Louis H. Freligh said, “I did not wish to give offense to the renowned general’s family by exposing the matter.”
There is one more story about Grant and a visit to a pawnshop but no historical vailidity. According to the legend, Grant learned of his appointment as brigadier general during the American Civil War from a published newspaper story. As he lacked the funds for a uniform, or suitable horse, he pawned items worth $500.00.
Grant used the pawn shop as a bank to get through some lean times. The pawn shop still serves that purpose. And it is still a discount store for most everything from electronics to firearms.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America