By Stacey Sklepinski, University of Michigan
Most people are probably more concerned with how much money is saved in their piggy bank rather than wondering why exactly we save our spare coins in pig-shaped containers. But how did those containers get that shape?
Containers for storing coins, known as moneyboxes or coin banks, have been used for centuries. To encourage saving, a small slit was placed on the top of these so that coins could enter but not exit. Because the only way to get the coins out was by breaking the container, they were mostly made of cheap materials. Eventually, these simple containers evolved into piggy banks.
Early piggy banks are hardly ever found—they were shattered in order to retrieve the saved coins—which has made it difficult to study their beginnings. Still, a couple of theories exist regarding the origins of the piggy bank.
The most common legend of how piggy banks were created dates back to 15th century Europe, where a type of clay called pygg was used to make plates, bottles, and vessels. When people threw their spare coins into these types of pygg containers, they started to call them pygg banks. Eventually, through a misinterpretation of the word pygg as pig, potters began to construct moneyboxes into the shape of pigs. As a result, the piggy bank was invented.
Some cast doubt on the legitimacy of this story, questioning if pygg actually existed as a type of clay used back then. However, some dictionaries do list pygg as a variation of the word pig, which denoted an item made of earthenware (a type of ceramic material). For example, one name for a moneybox was pirlie pig in 15th century Scotland. The use of pig in this case was most likely referring to the earthenware material, not the animal. However, it is still unclear how pig became a term for earthenware products.
Etymologist Michael Quinion believes that piggy banks have a connection to Germany because early piggy banks have been found there, including, recently, one from the 13th century. Another theory states that piggy banks may have originated in China during the Qing dynasty. Since pigs symbolized wealth and abundance in Chinese culture, people crafted pig-shaped vessels to store their coins. Others theorize that piggy banks originated in Indonesia; vessels dating to the 14th century have been found there. Through trade routes between China, Indonesia, and Europe, it is possible that the concept of piggy banks traveled from one country to another, ultimately making it more difficult to determine the location of the first piggy banks.
Nowadays, piggy banks are used all over the world. The major change to most of them is that they have a removable part on the bottom that releases the coins. Even though piggy banks are intended for children (as mine stares at me while I sit at my desk), their important lesson of saving money is widespread and truly priceless.
Additional Sources Arbola, Savi and Marco Onesti. Piggy Banks = Salvadanai, Savi Arbola and Marco Onesti; How Did It Begin? Customs and Superstitions, and Their Romantic Origins, Rudolph Brasch; Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Charles Panati; “Pig,” The Oxford English Dictionary; “Pig,” A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, from the twelfth century to the end of the seventeenth; “Pirlie Pig,” The Scottish National Dictionary; Four Centuries of Silver, Margaret Duda; Javanese terracottas: Terra incognita, H.R.A. Muller.