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Pawnbroking and its role in the history of the United States

Pawnbroking and its role in the history of the United States

The history behind the history taught in schools and universities is never boring. It is fascinating. And it is full of surprises. As an example, consider pawnbroking and its role in the history of the United States.  

In Europe during the 15th century the pawnbroker was an integral part of the banking system. It was a primary source of short-term credit used for the financing of business expansion and farm development. And it was also used to aid the poor and indignant. 

But surprisingly, it was also used by governments. According to legend Queen Isabella of Spain pawned the crown jewels to finance Christopher Columbus’ first voyage in search of a new route to India, China, Japan, and the Spice Islands. Instead, he discovered what was deemed by Europeans as the New World. 

In Colonial America professional pawnbrokers established businesses in all major cities, and in trade centers on the western frontier. They played a crucial role in the funding of expeditionary companies. And as currency was in chronically short supply, pawnbrokers would accept farm animals or equipment as collateral when taxes came due and had to be paid with gold and silver coins. 

Often the pawnbroker combined businesses. Many served also as innkeepers or tavern owners. They would accept goods as collateral for food, drinks, lodging or supplies. 

Before establishment of uniform American regulations in 1810, banking services were seldom available to people who did not own property. And so, pawnbrokers provided valuable services to wage earners. They provided small loans, occasionally as small as one or two dollars, with repayment terms of a week, two weeks, or month. 

Exemplifying the importance of the pawnbroker is a report published in 1828. The population of New York City at the time was just under 200,000 people. Pawnbrokers handled over 181,000 transactions for the year. Skilled immigrants were able to purchase tools that they could not afford to buy new.  

Pawnbrokers followed the westward expansion of the country. Often, they were one of the first businesses (or at least the third) to open in newly established villages or in mining boom towns. As in the modern era with ATM machines, pawnshops were usually established on the edges of retail districts near “entertainment” businesses such as saloons, theatres, and opera houses. 

A version of the pawn shop developed as the trading post in the southwest. For Native Americans making the transition from a nomadic lifestyle, these remote centers of commerce were often the literal difference between life and death. Saddles, blankets, or handicrafts could be pawned in exchange for supplies needed during the lean months of winter. The trading post also played a role in the development of western tourism. 

They provided needed supplies to early pioneering automobilists. And they provided the tourist with silver work, blankets, and artwork created by Native American craftsmen. 

The professionals at both Pawn World stores in Kingman exemplify the historic pawnbroker. They provide a valuable service to the community.  And they are an often-overlooked retail resource for someone needing tools, for coin collectors, and an array of other goods from firearms to electronics. 


Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America

It began as the private collection of J.M. Davis

It began as the private collection of J.M. Davis

With more than 12,000 firearms on display, the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, is the world’s largest gun museum. It began as the private collection of J.M. Davis, the proprietor of the now razed Hotel Mason in Claremore.  

According to local legend John Monroe Davis’s passion for firearm collecting began in childhood. When he refused to take the medicine the family doctor had prescribed his father bribed him with the gift of a small antique muzzleloading shotgun. 

As the manager of the Hotel Mason, Davis had ample opportunity to add to his collection, and to display it. Will Rogers was a regular at the hotel’s coffee shop, and he often brought visitors in to see the ever-growing firearm display. 

By 1929, Davis’s collection had grown to nearly 100 historic guns. Then as the Great Depression decimated the economy, and collections were liquidated, he acquired some of the most famous firearms in America. First, in 1930, he acquired the world-famous U.S. Bessette collection of 500 pieces, some of which were several hundred years old. This was followed by acquisition of the legendary Smith collection in Vinita, Oklahoma, and then John Sallings collection that included guns belonging to famous and infamous personalities. As a result, by the late 1930s his collection numbered more 2,500 weapons. 

As the decade went on there were so many opportunities to buy historic firearms, Davis set a budget limit of $3,000 per month! And he also developed a regional reputation for paying rent for people out of work, or providing travelers with hotel rooms, in exchange for guns that he would sell, collect, or trade. 

In A Guide Book to Highway 66 by Jack Rittenhouse published in 1946, it was noted that, “In the Mason Hotel lobby is a collection of 6,000 guns – the largest individual gun collection in the world, assembled by J.M. Davis that includes weapons of Emmett Dalton, Pancho Villa, Henry Starr, Cole Younger, Pretty Boy Floyd and others, as well as several ancient pieces.” 

After WWII the collection exploded in size. Veterans donated or sold guns acquired in the European and Pacific theaters. Gunsmiths from far and wide would bring in guns they had modified or completely invented.  As the sign outside the hotel claimed, the collection was now truly “World Famous”.

Then in 1948, Mr. Davis bought the Merle Gill collection. The collection of historic outlaw and lawman’s gun had been housed in a rolling museum that was displayed at state and county fairs. 

Through the years many prestigious museums attempted to acquire the collection including the Smithsonian Institution. But Davis wanted his collection to remain in Claremore. So, in 1965 he established the J.M. Davis Memorial Foundation, Inc. to become the actual owner of the collection. Several years later the foundation negotiated a lease with the State of Oklahoma and then Governor Henry Bellmon signed the legislation to establish the J.M. Davis Memorial Commission and appropriate funds to purchase the entire city block where the museum now stands.

If you don’t know the difference between an AR-15 or assault rifle, or a revolver or semi-automatic pistol you can get your kicks on Route 66 with a drive to Claremore, Oklahoma. Or you can visit with the professionals at Pawn World in Kingman, the largest firearm dealer in northwest Arizona. 


Written by Author Jim Hinckley