Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Medicis of Orangeburg

Few symbols of commerce are as readily recognized as that of the pawn broker. We tend to think of pawn shops on a slightly lower level of elegance than, say, major modern banks. In classic films, the pawn broker is usually the vehicle used to express desperation. Whether the family farm is broke, the gambler washed up or anxious expatriates seek funds to flee Casablanca, it always the pawn broker's tender mercies to which they must appeal.

Everyone knows the familiar logo of 3 balls suspended together as the pawn broker's trademark. Few have any idea where that came from. Back in the 1400s, the Medici family were highly successful lenders in Italy and had this very symbol on their family crest. As usual, success and respectability are coveted so lenders in other countries took that part of the Medici crest to be their trademark. Thus was born the classic logo of three gold balls for pawn shops.

We ran up on Woody's Pawn and Jewelry store in Orangeburg. The three gold balls look more like cherries on Woody's sign. This reminds us that the three pomegranates hung by common stems were taken from the Silver Shekel which was struck to commemorate the Jewish revolt against Rome in 68 A.D. In the mural, Woody seems to be baiting ducks and customers with a steady stream of cash released from one hand. This in turn reminds us that lenders often promote the ease with which a loan might be granted more than the interest rate upon that loan. Why would we expect pawn shops to be any different.

A little further down the road of history, the Roman Church imposed laws against usury. Hard times and financial necessities prompted a repeal of the usury laws and then it was back to business as usual. Usury is generally defined as unreasonably high rates of interest on loans. Laws against usury were widely adopted in almost every state in the Union to prevent exploitation of persons in need.

During the mid mid 1960s lenders became eager to offer the public what is now known as the revolving credit card. Such a card would be honored by almost all types of businesses rather than a store specific card. Banks pushed this very hard and finally the South Carolina Legislature was persuaded to revoke the usury laws which would not allow the exorbitant rate of 18% APR which lenders wanted to begin charging. Of course, that type of card has grown in popularity in recent times almost as much as the massive consumer debt which it made possible. To the question asked by a popular commercial for yet another credit card company: " What's in YOUR wallet", the clear answer is, "Not much."


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