Cloth and Silver: Pawning and Material Life in Mexico City at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
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The Americas 60.3 (2004) 325-362

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Cloth and Silver:
Pawning and Material Life in Mexico City at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century *

Marie Francois

For most residents of Mexico City at the turn of the nineteenth century, daily life was cash poor.1 Homemakers with servants or without, merchants and artisans, carpenters and domestic servants all turned to pawnshops to finance routine household, business and recreational needs, some on a daily basis. At the end of the colonial period and in the first decades of independent republican rule, residents from the lower and intermediate ranks of the city commonly raised cash by securing loans with possessions as collateral, leaving clothing, tools, and jewels temporarily with pawnbrokers. Based on more than 8,000 transactions culled from pawnshop records from the 1780s to the 1820s,2 this article argues that pawning material [End Page 325] goods served to alleviate economic and other pressures at the household level. 3

It was mostly women managing households who provided for dependents and/or maintained class and ethnic identities through creative financing strategies that depended on regular use of petty credit mechanisms. Archival documents and literary sources suggest that there were fundamental continuities in this material history of Mexico City from the last decades of the colonial period well into the decades after Independence, which was achieved in 1821. 4 Material goods continued to serve as collateral for small loans throughout the nineteenth century. Pawning was a regular strategy used by many urban residents to negotiate the colonial and post-colonial political economy as well as cultural hierarchies. Petty credit secured by women helped individuals and families steady their precarious foothold on the social ladder of hierarchy. While pawning could allow some to maintain their status or even ascend the ladder, for most people collateral credit cushioned (or simply prolonged) the slip down.

"Toda clase de Mugeres que llegan pidiendo fabor" 5

While men from all classes and ethnicities also used pawnshops for subsistence loans and both men and women pawned goods to raise business capital or meet other financial needs, pawning relations in Mexico City were primarily shaped by the daily practices of wives, widows and single women provisioning their households. The reasons for pawning, the arenas in which [End Page 326] it was done, and the goods given as collateral differed by class and ethnicity. The working population, largely mestizo (mixed-race) but also creole (American-born Spanish) and Indian, took their clothing and linens to male peninsulares (Spaniards born on the Iberian peninsula) who owned pulperías (neighborhood grocery stores, usually located at street intersections) in the colonial period and to casas deempeño (pawnshops separate from retail) by the 1830s to supplement meager incomes.6 The mostly creole middle ranks attempted to maintain their social status or boost their business capital amidst political and economic changes by taking imported cloth, silver and gold jewelry and table service items to a state-sponsored pawnshop. In 1775, the Bourbon government opened the Monte de Piedad, a charitable institution initially funded with a pious donation from the Conde de Regla.7 The Monte de Piedad was part of the Bourbon expansion of an institutional safety net for city residents through state-run charitable institutions. It served to shield the "better" groups in society from the vagaries of the economy, like the pension funds for widows of bureaucrats (Montepíos). 8 Under royal patronage, the Monte de Piedad had the charitable end of "aiding the needs of the public" and spiritual support for "the Souls of Purgatory" through masses held in its chapel. While ostensibly founded to help "the public" in general, its clientele was restricted to those who had collateral goods worth at least two pesos. In order to free beneficiaries from "the usury they may have occasion to suffer in other parts," the Monte de Piedad would lend money against the value of jewelry of silver and precious [End Page 327] stones or fine cloth goods, charging no interest (though the customer did pay one...