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When Did Pigs Start Representing Personal Finance?

Why piggy banks? Why not sheep or bears or salamanders?

The first person I reached out to for this story was John Ratzenberger. Not because I thought he’d actually know the answer to my question, but because he’s played Toy Story’s Hamm for 25 years now, and I thought it’d be fun to talk to the guy. In my head, I imagined it would be like one of those rants from his character Cliff Clavin on Cheers, where he’d spout off a long history of the piggy bank which was maybe only 50 percent true. 

Alas, I never did hear back from Mr. Ratzenberger’s representation, so I turned to the internet, where the odds of finding reliable information are, well, usually worse than 50/50. 

If you Google “where did piggy banks come from?” you’ll find a variety of “did you know” type articles that share the story, which generally goes like this: “Pygg” was actually a type of clay from the Middle Ages, and it was used for creating simple things like cups and money jars in Europe. Over time, it seems that those creating pygg banks decided to be cute — or they misunderstood — and they created pygg banks that looked like pigs.

It’s a bit simplistic, so much so that some doubt this claim, saying it was born out of a 1987 book called Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, which conveniently failed to cite its references. They also — more damningly — claim that the pygg theory is bullshit because there was never such a clay as “pygg,” thus there were no pygg containers at all. 

Still, there is one rather authoritative piece of literature that supports this tale. Henry Machyn was a clothier in England who lived from about 1498 to 1563 — while not a whole lot is known about him, his diary has become an important piece of historical literature, as it chronicled a rather significant time in England. In this diary, a reference to a “pygg for money” can be found, which gives some support to the pygg theory. Still, because they were made of clay and these banks had to be smashed to retrieve the money, evidence of them is scant, as none seem to have survived.

While there are also theories that place the piggy bank’s birthplace in Germany, Scotland and China, the most compelling argument places the piggy bank’s origins in Indonesia, where pig banks could be found as far back as the 1300s (well before the “pygg” theory). Java, an island in Indonesia, is home to a native wild boar known as a celeng. As The History Blog explains, “As with all its porcine cousins, these boars are fertile, have large appetites and enjoy wallowing in the earth. As such they are symbols of prosperity, of good fortune and of a connection to spirits of the earth. It makes sense, therefore, that clay taken from the earth would be shaped into a fat little pig and used for keeping coins.” And while these banks were also broken to retrieve the coins, a handful do survive, like this one on display at the Met, and this one from the Majapahit Empire.

From there, the story goes that, thanks to European imperialism, the pig bank made its way to Europe, where it was popular because pigs were important creatures in the cultures there, too, especially Germany, which saw pigs as lucky. Over time, they found their way to the U.S., where the term “Piggy Bank” was born sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s

As for the “pygg” theory, while it’s possible that there was some sort of historical convergence of pig banks and the pygg clay, it doesn’t quite hold up, given the evidence of the pig banks from Java. Really, the whole idea does sound more like the kind of half-true bullshit you’d hear from a rambling barfly who just wants to show off how smart they are. 

So, until next time, Mr. Ratzenberger.