Pawning: Inequality as Business? Pawn-Broking in Sweden, 1872-1950

Sofia Murhem and Göran Ulväng

Pawning could be viewed as the archetypical unequal relationship in business, a destitute borrower pawning his or hers clothes to a pawnbroker who has the power to decide whether the client can put food on her table or starve, which to some account the British and American research tell us (Tebbutt 1983, Johnson 1985, Hurl-Eamon 2008, Woloson 2009). But other evidence (Führer 2001 and Francois 2006 for Germany and Mexico respectively) point to the fact that most goods were redeemed, and that goods only were pawned if the borrower had good hope of redeeming the pledge. It is possible that the different pictures of pawning depend on differences in living standards of the working class in different countries, as suggested by Führer, but it may also be that the source material used for the various studies lead to different results. We use a unique material, the daily ledgers from a Swedish pawnshop during a long period, 1880-1950. Thereby, we can see what was pawned, the value of it, how long it was in pledge, and when or if it was redeemed. We find little evidence of destitution or habitual pawning.

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