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Reviewed by:
  • In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression
  • Jane Kamensky (bio)
In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression. By Wendy Woloson. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. 233. Cloth, $35.00.)

We are all in hock now, Wendy Woloson points out in the final chapter of this deeply researched and lucidly written study of pawnbrokerage in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America. Having feasted for decades on credit-card debt—"pawning's mirror opposite" (182)—many Americans now find themselves in famine, pawning consumer goods bought dear with plastic for a little cash loaned at equally high interest rates. Long on the downswing, pawning is making a comeback: The number of pawnshops in the United States has nearly doubled since 1988. Surely the time is ripe for Woloson's probing history of the pawnshop seen from both sides of the counter and many other angles of vision as well. Using an enormous variety of evidence, including business records, personal documents, trade cards, satiric prints, sheet music, dime novels, penny papers, and much more, In Hock redeems pawnbrokerage [End Page 549] from stereotypes that have haunted the trade since its inception. Woloson reveals instead a vibrant and complex facet of the emerging industrial economy in cities ranging from Boston to Birmingham to Leadville, Colorado. At its best, Woloson's study makes a worthy companion to Stephen Mihm's A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States (Cambridge, MA, 2007), Seth Rockman's Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2010; reviewed earlier in this issue), and other recent books probing the murky interstices of early American capitalism.

Woloson opens In Hock with a visit to her neighborhood pawnshop, the bright and cheerful McGarry's, a family business serving Philadelphians for two generations. "The place is neat and clean," she writes, "the atmosphere relaxed and friendly. The radio is tuned to NPR" (1). Pawnbrokers aren't who we think they are, in other words. Bankers, rescuers, and retailers by turns, they're a far cry from the seedy lowlifes of popular imagination. Primetime stereotypes don't get the pawners right, either, Woloson discovered. She herself pawned a gold necklace for $40.00—another $6.00 due in five months if she wants to redeem it—all in the service of explaining to her reader the basic terms of the strange trade that is her subject.

The reductive stereotypes Woloson wants so badly to dispel are the subject of her second chapter. The caricature of the pawnbroker as a rapacious and marginal figure and his customers as impoverished victims is an old one, arriving in British North America in the mid eighteenth century, before pawnbrokerage itself took root. Stories and images printed in London and reprinted in the colonies beginning in the 1760s made pawnbrokers "anathema to the emerging capitalist system" (22). Cast as greedy, irrational foreigners (often Jews), pawnbrokers were merchants gone through the looking glass: They took goods and gave money with strings attached, doubly impeding their customers' pursuits of happiness. Woloson marshals mountains of evidence on this point, and her readings of these cultural texts are nuanced and persuasive. But starting the book with a lengthy explication of the stereotypes she wishes to dispel works against her agenda. She devotes nearly a quarter of In Hock to documenting what the pawnbroker was not.

Far more revealing are the tour de force middle chapters of In Hock, which offer a painstaking social history of pawning from the perspectives of brokers, clients, and police. In America as in Europe, pawnbrokers followed immigrants to cities, where new kinds of lending arose to meet [End Page 550] the needs of newly arrived populations. The nation's first pawnshop opened in New York at the turn of the nineteenth century, providing short-term loans in exchange for the kinds of humble collateral working people could pledge. You couldn't apprentice to become a pawnbroker; the profession, "much like dogcatching," was increasingly necessary yet hardly an aspirational choice for self-making men (58). Using city directories, Woloson finds that pawnbrokers started life in a dizzying variety...


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