Bushwick Photo du Jour: Medici Meets Knickerbocker
I recently found this wonderful remnant of a bygone era at the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Stockholm Street. As I took the above photograph a pair of women stopped and asked me what I found so interesting. I pointed out the symbol gracing the top of this building and told them a pawnbroker once operated a business here.
When I got home later I realized that although I recognized the pawnbroker symbol instantly, I did not know (or more likely— forgot) its origins. Being a fan of this kind of worthless knowledge I thought it would be fun to find out. Most of what I found online was more or less the same. Here is Wikipedia’s take:
The pawnbroker’s symbol is three spheres suspended from a bar. The three sphere symbol is attributed to the Medici Family of Florence, Italy, owing to its symbolic meaning of Lombard. This refers to the Italian province of Lombardy, where pawn shop banking originated under the name of Lombard banking. The three golden spheres were originally the symbol which medieval Lombard merchants hung in front of their houses, and not the arms of the Medici family. It has been conjectured that the golden spheres were originally three flat yellow effigies of byzants, or gold coins, laid heraldically upon a sable field, but that they were converted into spheres to better attract attention.
Most European towns called the pawn shop the “Lombard”. The House of Lombard was a banking family in medieval London, England. According to legend, a Medici employed by Charles the Great slew a giant using three bags of rocks. The three ball symbol became the family crest. Since the Medicis were so successful in the financial, banking, and money lending industries, other families also adopted the symbol. Throughout the Middle Ages, coats of arms bore three balls, orbs, plates, discs, coins and more as symbols of monetary success. Pawnbrokers (and their detractors) joke that the three balls mean “Two to one, you won’t get your stuff back”.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers. The symbol has also been attributed to the story of Nicholas and the three bags of gold.
I for one find the location of this building rather serendipitous. As it would happen, an avenue bearing the name “St. Nicholas” is only three blocks away.