City Pawn Bank, Amsterdam

Stadsbank van Lening (City Pawn Bank)

The Amsterdam Stadsbank van Lening (City Pawn Bank) is a not-for-profit city pawn shop dating from 1614 at Oude­zijds Voor­burg­wal 300, with a back entrance at Nes 57. It is the oldest official credit distri­butor in Amsterdam. Today it has about 85 employees working here, in the associated auction and in the offices on the Bijlmer­plein and Osdorp­plein. Once they accepted almost everything you could think of (clothes, textiles, merchandise and house­hold items), since 2016 they accept only jewelry, gold, silver, diamonds and watches.

Stadsbank van Lening (City Pawn Bank) from 1614 at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 300, Amsterdam

Stadsbank van Lening (City Pawn Bank) from 1614 at Oude­zijds Voor­burg­wal 300 (July 2022).

The text above the doorway, written by Balthazar Huydecoper in 1740, reads (translated):

If you have neither money nor goods, then pass this door by
If you have the latter, but miss the first, then come to me
Give me a pawn and I will give you money. Why should I warrant you?
Is it not enough that you live off what is mine?
But if you demand your pawn back, then you must take care in time
To repay me my main sum, with the added interest
So that I can help both you and me, and show the auditors
Of my secrets, the grave of the honorless loan sharks

City Pawn Bank, Amsterdam, detail of a map from 1625

Under the lens the City Pawn Bank, detail of a map from 1625 by Balthasar Florisz van Bercken­rode. SSW on top (Rijks­museum).

To describe a visit to the Pawn Bank, which was not seen as being very honorable, eufemisms were used, like: “visiting Uncle John” or “climbing the doorstep of shame” instead of “going to the Lommerd” (from Lombards, the north-Italian pawn brokers who introduced the pawn loans). The Lommertbrug which led to the pawn bank was jokingly nicknamed the “Bridge of Sighs”, even though it doesn’t in the least resemble the famous bridge in Venice.

Lommertbrug, Amsterdam, across Oudezijds Voorburgwal

The “Bridge of Sighs” across the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, officially called Lommertbrug (Bridge nr. 203) (July 2022).

Interest Stigma

The revulsion against the charging of interest existed in many cultures. In the 4th century Christian councils denounced the practice, in 789 Emperor Charlemagne issued a law prohi­biting the charging of interest. Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the usurers in the seventh circle of Hell. The philan­thropy of Italian Renais­sance families was partly inspired by feelings of guilt about their profits from interest. The Church’s position was that extracting even a single cent of interest was evil. This stigma continued well into the 1500s, while the local church or a wealthy family were often the only source of capital. Many peasants bought their land by getting mortgages from a monastery.

Door at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 300, City Pawn Bank, Amsterdam

The door at Oude­zijds Voor­burg­wal 300 with the text from 1740 (July 2022).

The Lombards

During the crusades (1100-1300) trade with the Arab world grew and Italian cities started to provide credit against collateral. Credits were initially provided mostly by Jewish bankers, who were not restricted by the dictates of the church. When the pope condoned the practice in the 11th century, Italians entered this credit business too. In the 13th century, when the church prohibited the charging of interest again, many of these lenders moved north. Because they mostly came from the Lombardy and Piemonte regions, they were called Lombards every­where. They settled in Amsterdam in 1477.

The Moneylender and his Wife, painting from 1514 by Quinten Massys in the Louvre, Paris

The Moneylender and his Wife, painting from 1514 by Quinten Massys (1466–1530) (Louvre, Paris).

The Italian money changers set up a banca (bench or counter in old Italian) on the many annual markets, traveling with merchants throughout Western Europe. They introduced the “lettera di pagamento” (letter of payment), which was basically a loan with interest, and gave loans for collateral. They provided credit for pawn, eventually mostly to the poor. Their practice of charging way too much interest (sometimes up to 80% yearly in difficult times) eventually meant their demise, as many cities ordered restrictions and took over the handing out of loans. The origin of the term bankrupt also came from these Lombards: when they could not meet their financial obli­gations or mal­functioned, they had their table demolished, “banca rotta” in Italian, broken bench.

Stadsbank van Lening at Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam

Stadsbank van Lening at Oude­zijds Voor­burg­wal (July 2022).

Amsterdam & Loan Sharks

The city first attempted to expel the loan sharks in 1547, but that did not make a big enough dent in the practices at first. Then, after the 1578 Protestant Alteration, additional measures were taken, because the Reformed Protestants were dead set against usury. Some private pawn shops were given permits, the worst were prohibited from operating. To counteract the private loan sharks, the city established their own pawn bank in 1614. They used interest rates between 8% and 16% and any profits were used to finance poor relief. Other cities followed the Amsterdam example later.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal 300-298, Amsterdam, drawing by H.P. Schouten from 1775

Three buildings of the City Pawn Bank at Oudezijds Voorburgwal 300-298. On the right is the Enge Lombardsteeg (Narrow Lombard Alley). Drawing by H.P. Schouten (1747-1822) from 1775 (Collection Atlas Splitgerber, Stadsarchief Amsterdam).

Mountains of Compassion

As early as the 15th century some cities in Italy had started to create so-called Mountains of Compassion (Latin: mons pietatis, City Loan Banks), as a protection for people in financial dire straits. The first opened in Perugia in 1462, started by Franciscan monks. These loan banks did not aim for profit and were mostly operated to counteract the private pawn banks. Eventually the church condoned their charging of interest, to keep them afloat.

In Amsterdam the Bankruptcy Chamber (Desolate Boedelkamer) was established in 1643, which mediated between creditor and debtor, holding both responsible for the over­crediting. When the debtor had sold all his belongings, the debt was officially cancelled and the creditor had to accept the additional loss. In 1893 the Bankruptcy law was adopted in the Netherlands — when someone cannot pay their debt and has at least two creditors, they can be stripped of their belongings and declared bankrupt. Even today loans still operate under these conditions.

Entrance of the Stadsbank van Lening at Nes 57, Amsterdam

Entrance of the Stads­bank van Lening at Nes 57. The cartouche in the center of the old ware­house higher up the wall has the text on it: “In the year 1614 on April 29 the first loan was issued here” (July 2022).

Location of the City Pawn Bank

Were the City Pawn bank is now, there was originally a peat pond which drained to Rokin, filled in when the Oude­zijds Voor­burg­wal was created. The convent of Saint Mary Mag­dalene started there in 1407 — a new convent was built in 1422. The water of the ditch running to Rokin was covered in 1550, Enge Lombard­steeg and Wijde Lombard­steeg created on top, a peat ware­house built next to the alley. After 1579 the convent was used by the Leprozen­huis (Leper House). In 1613 the city took over the north wing and the ware­house to establish the City Pawn Bank there. The house on Nes (from 1890) was added to the complex later. The main building on Oude­zijds Voor­burg­wal was added in 1669 as replacement for the old convent wing, the old entrance gate incor­po­rated in the façade.

Schematic plan of the buildings of the Stadsbank van Lening (City Pawn Bank), Amsterdam

The complex of buildings of the Stadsbank van Lening (South on top).

Income Fluctuations

Above the side entrance on Enge Lombardsteeg the text reads: “To help the needy a loan bank for small sums was established here”. Except of course the very needy were not helped by that, as this only worked if you had something to pawn in the first place. Most people in those times did not have a steady income, as they had seasonal or temporary jobs. Merchants and craftsmen also suffered large fluctuations in income.

Side entrance of the City Pawn Bank on Enge Lombardsteeg, Amsterdam

Side entrance of the City Pawn Bank on Enge Lombard&hsy;steeg (July 2022).

Keeping your family housed, fed and warm was a challenge in those circumstances. Many families coped by regularly pawning small items, winter coats, or even Sunday church clothes during the week — to recollect them after payday on Fridays. Clothes handed out by orphanages, schools and other institutions had marks sown into them to prevent pawning. For those who could not turn to family or neighbors these short term loans were essential for survival.

View of Nes, Amsterdam, with City Pawn Bank, looking south

View of Nes with City Pawn Bank, looking south in the direction of Grim­burg­wal (July 2022).

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