Debt through the ages: 10 historical money and debt facts

posted by in Budgeting, Debt news

Has time really changed the way we look at debt and money?

Has time really changed the way we look at debt and money?

While things such as debt management plans and IVAs are relatively new, money woes are by no means a modern day problem. People have been struggling with debt for as long as money has been in existence. There were even bailiffs as far back as William the Conqueror’s heyday.

Today’s blogpost looks at the meaning behind some money and debt-related words we use all the time – you’ll be surprised where some of them sprang up from…

1.    How piggin’ strange!

Piggybanks are probably one of the oddest things to be associated with money. It makes more sense if you know the history behind our penny-minding pals. Folk from the Middle Ages used orange clay called pygg to make pots, plates and jars. They would often use these jars to store their money, hence the term ‘piggy bank’.

2.    Bringing home the bacon

Keeping the pig theme trotting along (sorry), this well-known phrase came to pass from a strange 15th century tradition. European peasants believed bacon to be a luxury and would string it up to show off whenever a visitor popped over.

Bringing the bacon home from the market meant you were doing very well for yourself. It also derives from winning a greased pig as a prize in the village fair – a feat that could improve a bachelor boy’s chances with the local ladies!

3.    Collateral damage

Under the early Roman Republic, a person could pledge himself as collateral for a loan in a type of contract called Nexum. If he failed to pay, he would become his creditor’s slave. This inhumane practice was outlawed in 326BC, thank goodness…

4.    A Dickens of a debt problem

Did you know that the father of author Charles Dickens was sent to Victorian debtor’s prison? It was common in those days to do time if you fell behind on your debts. Fortunately, this is no longer the case – only non-payment of magistrate fines, taxes, CSA and TV licence can eventually lead to jail time (although this is very rare).

5.    A real bench breaker

The word bankruptcy is derived from two Latin words – bancus meaning table or bench and ruptus meaning broken. In the early 1800s people used to meet, exchange news and sell their wares in open air markets. Merchants would use tables or benches so that shoppers could browse their stock while they chatted.

When the merchant could no longer afford to stay in business his table or bench was broken to symbolise him being unfit to trade. Talk about embarrassing – little wonder that bankruptcy maintains a stigma to this day.

6.    Half a pound of tuppenny rice…

The 17th century nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ tells the tale of a person’s dealing with a pawnbroker. The weasel was the name of a cobbler’s tool, and to ‘pop’ something was to pawn it. Some believe the song is about a cobbler who fell on hard times and had to flog his tools of the trade…

7.    Getting the sack

This expression is derived from the days when workers would carry their tools in sacks. If their boss no longer required their services, the sack was handed back to the worker so they could gather their tools up and leave. Talk about subtle!

8.    Pin money

If your grandparents gave you pocket money as a child, they may have called it ‘pin money’. This strange expression dates back to Tudor England. Sewing pins were very expensive in these days, and women weren’t allowed to work. Gentlemen would give their wives and daughters an allowance to buy pins for mending their dresses.

9.    A dead pledge

Mortgages have been in existence since medieval times. The term ‘mortgage’ is reputed to be derived from the French meaning for ‘dead pledge’. This literally translates into something that you pay until the day you die. Luckily we live a lot longer nowadays, so this isn’t always the case.

10. I’m off to spend a penny

When public loos were first built outside the London Royal Exchange in the 1850s they were coin operated. You would have to spend a penny in order to use the facilities. The term didn’t come into prominence until 1945 however, when H. Lewis put this quote in his tale “Strange Story”:

“‘Us girls,’ she said, ‘are going to spend a penny!’ 

Times may have changed, but the stress that debt can cause remains the same. If you want to put your debt problems in the past for good, you can contact our Helpline on 0800 138 1111 (Free from all landlines and mobiles). Alternatively, you can find the best solution for your debts in just 20 minutes by using our online Debt Remedy service.

Got any historical money or debt facts? Tweet us at MoneyAware.

Rachel Connor has been with the charity for over 8 years, starting in Helpline before joining the MoneyAware team in 2012. Rach enjoys travelling, video games, watching anime, reading and creative writing in her spare time (currently writing a Young Adult fantasy series). She had a previous life as head writer on Cartoon Network's Ed Edd n Eddy and as a copywriter for LivingSocial. She's also written comics and graphic novels for the animated series Regular Show.

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  • rplan_chris

    Great post Rachel! I love bits and pieces like that! No.3 makes me think that we’d have a lot of slaves nowadays…. 🙂 Cheers

    • Nexus is a very scary concept, but I can’t help but think you’re right there! What a relief it’s no longer legal, eh?

      Happy you liked the article – I’m a bit of a history geek so it was super fun to write! 😀

      Best wishes,