- A Culture of Everyday Credit: Housekeeping, Pawnbroking, and Governance in Mexico City, 1750–1920
Marie Francois uses pawnshops to tell us a great deal about housekeeping, gender, ethnicity, technology, consumption, crime, honor, economics, culture, and political power in Mexico over a period of a hundred and seventy years, from the Bourbon reforms of the late eighteenth century to the Revolution of 1910. In her first six chapters, Francois alternates chapters devoted to borrowers with chapters focusing on lenders in three major historical periods: the late colonial and early republican years from 1750 to 1840, the mid nineteenth century from 1830 to 1875–1880, and the era of Porfirio Díaz from 1880 to the Revolution. Her seventh chapter looks at pawning and borrowing in Mexico City during the turbulent years between 1910 and 1920.
Francois combines a wealth of detail and statistical summaries of archival documents with apt illustrations from literary and narrative sources. She provides a wealth of statistics in the 27 tables included in the seven chapters along with 40 additional tables organized into three appendixes at the back of the book. Readers with quantitative inclinations will find much to ponder in these pages, but the statistically impaired have nothing to fear here. Francois writes with skill and intelligence, ably managing the web of complex social and ideological relationships all of which were grounded in the daily reality of managing a household and putting food on the table. She ends each chapter with a concise summary pulling together the strands that she has developed. Her language is precise and, at times, passionate.
In the rhetoric of colonial administrators, pawnshop customers were poor and needy women, and Francois finds there were plenty of these, who needed to hock their clothes for their daily sustenance. The average size of a loan in private pawning, most often in corner stores, was just enough to feed a family of five for one day. It wasn't just food that people were buying; Francois reports that there were 150,000 items in pawn in taverns in 1760, "enough for at least one item per city resident" (28). Although literate men saw pawning as a clear indicator of vice and focused their attention on the most wretched cases, it was not only indigents who were taking out loans secured by their possessions. Material goods functioned as savings accounts; Francois notes the example of one woman who [End Page 232] bought pearls for her necklace as her business waxed and hocked them as it waned. In Mexico, pawnshops were patronized by the middle class and even the elite. Indeed, Mexico's Monte de Piedad initially left the small loans to private lenders and set a minimum for loans that was more than five times the average loan in private pawnshops. As Francois wrote, "While couching the mission of the Monte de Piedad in a discourse about helping needy women, in fact its mission seems to have been keeping 'proper' women such as the Creole widows in the Monte record books from sinking into the ranks of the poor.... " (45) The patriarchs of the Monte were trouble by the need of women to hock their skirts for food, but their first priority was not to feed the needy but to protect the honor of Spanish women.
Throughout all three periods, the greatest numbers of those pawning their possessions were women and most of the pawnbrokers were men, particularly Spanish men. By the second half of the nineteenth century, shopkeepers had stopped asserting that they were benevolent patriarchs aiding and protecting poor women; instead, they asserted their rights to run their businesses as they pleased without government interference. When economic liberals swept away restrictions on interest rates and the Díaz government privatized the Monte Piedad, the stage was set for direct confrontations during the Revolution of 1910. Well-organized Spanish pawnbrokers closed their doors to protest Revolutionary regimes' restrictions on interest rates; women first petitioned, then rioted, breaking into the pawnshops...