Pawnbroking in Pop Culture: Exploring Depictions, Stereotypes, and Accuracy

Pawnbroking is an unlikely profession to have been in existence for millennia, and yet it endures as an especially old and storied service in the UK – as well as a source of unusual tension. In the early 1000s, pawnbroking sparked internecine fighting, significant shifts in the direction of national law and even allowed a king to finance a war.

Today, the reality of pawnbroking is much more banal, and much more genial too – but this doesn’t stop fictional and cultural representations of pawnbrokers from trucking in the difficulties of its past. What are these representations, and do they measure up against the real thing?

In Film

Pawnbrokers are commonly depicted as the public face of criminal enterprise, whether acting as fences for illegal operations or themselves acting illegally. However, one of the most culturally significant portrayals of a pawnbroker in the history of cinema, however, was courtesy of Rod Steiger; in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 The Pawnbroker, he plays holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman, who lives a purgatorial post-war existence in Harlem. Pawnbroking is used as a framework for social commentary and character study in one, where Nazerman’s post-traumatic isolation and indifference are played out in his opinions of the people that utilise his services.

In Television

In television dramas and soaps, pawnbrokers are similarly used as opportunities to explore poverty and desperation, being compelling cribs for the language of necessity and obligation. However, pawnbroking has made a much bigger splash in the world of reality television, where popular American show Pawn Stars set the mould. A technicolour cross between Antiques Roadshow and American Chopper, Pawn Stars follows the staff and clients of a Las Vegas pawnbrokers, as rare and esoteric items are tested for veracity and appraised accordingly.

In Literature

Of course, the stereotypes in which these various examples share have their cultural and historical roots – many of which can be found in literature. Indeed, Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was an adaptation of the 1961 novel by Edward Lewis Wallant. Naturally, there are contemporary examples of pawnbroking in novels which echo many pre-existing media interpretations, but the roots of these can be traced back as far as Dickens – who used a real pawnbrokers on Drury Lane to describe poverty and desperation in a piece for the Evening Standard.

In Reality

Of course, these depictions of pawnbroking are a far cry from the reality of the profession and service – whether owing to dramatic liberty or changing times. Today, pawnbroking is regarded as a useful service for the management of assets and money – and an increasingly common service for the accessing of short-term money.

Pawnbrokers in reality are no different than retail environments of any other kind. Staff are knowledgeable and personable, and regular clients are treated with respect – unlike the over-the-top, fictionalised encounters immortalised in American reality TV.